A well-known venture capitalist has his eye on one of the biggest and most elusive prizes of our times: nuclear fusion. And the "skunkworks" project he's eyeing is not from some stealth startup or academic lab. Rather, it's under development at aerospace company Lockheed Martin and has connections to, yes, the omnipresent Google.
Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Silicon Valley VC Draper Fisher Jurveston (DFJ), has posted photographs and information on Flickr of a presentation by Lockheed senior program manager Charles Chase of a small fusion machine that Chase says Lockheed will fashion into a prototype by 2017. Chase made the presentation last week at Google "Solve for X" gathering. Solve for X encourages solutions to pressing problems.
There is nothing in the posting that says DFJ or Google are currently backing the project financially. But one can assume that Jurvetson might be waiting out the count to invest in a possible grand slam, as VCs are known to try to do (Jurvetson's own portfolio has included Hotmail, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, among others). Google has a history of investing in sustainable energy.
Many people regard fusion power as the Holy Grail of energy because in theory it would provide a safe, endless power source. Fusion mimics the process of the sun, hurling atoms together rather than splitting them apart as today's nuclear fission technology does.
But ever since scientists first began working on it in the 1950's, it has remained 30-to-50 years away, because no one has figured out how to continuosuly harness more energy than they spend in creating fusion reactions.
Large international government projects like ITER in France and NIF in Livermore, Calif. are nowhere near perfecting the technology on which they are spending considerable sums. ITER has a budget of around €13 billion ($17.3 billion), for instance.
THE FIGHT FOR FUSION
A number of smaller, privately held and in some cases venture backed startup companies have been tackling fusion using technologies different from those at the behemoths. Many of them have smaller fusion machines in mind, not like the 20-story "tokamak" that ITER is building, or the 3-football-field-long laser facility at NIF. The smaller fusion machines would have less capacity than the 1.5 gigawatt reactors that define nuclear fission new builds today, and thus could fit into the "modular" nuclear movement, auguring benefits like lower cost and transportability.
The Lockheed "skunkworks," as Jurvetson calls it is the latest known example. (Perhaps he takes the word from Lockheed. Chase's LinkedIn profile identifies him as "senior program manager, revolutionary technology programs, at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works" - the Palmdale, Calif. division of the Bethesda, Md. company. Either way, a little intrigue is never a bad idea for a stealth marketing campaign).
As Jurvetson reports:
"Lockheed is working on a compact 100MW high-Beta reactor...that should be about 2x2x4 meters. They hope to have a prototype working by 2017, to be able to meet global baseload energy demand by 2050, in time to have an impact on our climate."
The 2050 projection is startling. Chase basically believes that Lockheed's reactor can start connecting to the grid 10 years from now (5 years after the prototype is ready) and that it can feed all of the planet's "baseload" requirements by 2050 (when he says "baseload" will entail supplying power for electric vehicles, among other things).
Chase also says that the large government projects won't be able to do this until the turn of the century, "when it might be just a little too late," to stave off disastrous global warming consequences of fossil fuels. ITER and NIF's own timelines are probably not as far out as Chase suggests for them.
Lockheed will compete against privately-backed fusion startups, including: Lawrenceville Plasma Physics; the Jeff Bezos-backed General Fusion; Helion Energy; and the under-the-radar Tri-Alpha Energy, which has backing from Goldman Sachs, Venrock, Vulcan Capital, New Enterprise Associates and reportedly from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. And that's just a sampling (write in below with your favorite fusion projects!).
Each of these companies is approaching fusion with its own different approach. LPP and Tri-Alpha are attempting a form of fusion called "aneutronic," which directly creates electricity in the form of charged ions, rather than creating heat to drive a turbine to make electricity.
Some fusion supporters want to drop the word "nuclear" from their technology, in order to distance themselves from a brand that suffers disdain from many public quarters (despite a remarkable safety record, a history of causing far fewer fatalities and illnesses than fossil fuels, and outperforming solar PV, hydroelectric and biomass as a low CO2 emitter over its life cycle - but more on that another time).
Jurvetson is certainly among the crowd searching for a new moniker. On his Flickr posting, he notes, "Looking for a better name, I suggested that they call it 'sequestered solar.'"
If you want to learn more about Lockheed's project, you can see Chase in action at the Google event in a YouTube video below. I found it as I was posting this story, and haven't had a chance to view yet. I will shortly, and I'll probably write in more detail later on my Weinberg Foundation blog (Weinberg is a London-based non-profit group that advocates alternative forms of nuclear fission and fusion that could operate more efficiently and even more safely than the conventional nuclear technology that has been in place for some 50 years).
Have a look. Feel free to react in the comments section below. Go nuclear, if you want:
Photos are from Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.
UPDATE, 10:50 a.m. PST, Feb. 15: This version corrects an earlier one that put Lockheed's project on a similar long-term timeline to the big government projects. After watching the YouTube video, it's clear that Lockheed's Chase believes his reactor can generate significant "baseload" amounts of CO2-free electricity well before ITER or NIF will. You can read more on my Weinberg blog here.
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