OpenAi CEO Sam Altman, a prominent figure in the tech world and former president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, has made a significant investment in nuclear fusion startup Helion Energy. Altman’s involvement has brought increased attention to the potential of nuclear fusion technology.
Nuclear fusion, a process where lighter atomic nuclei combine to form heavier nuclei, releases massive amounts of energy without emitting carbon or producing significant radioactivity. However, the challenge lies in maintaining the reaction and designing a method to convert the released energy into electricity. A number of international teams are researching ways to refine this technology.
Long regarded as a clean energy source that could potentially replace fossil fuels, nuclear fusion has attracted investments from tech leaders such as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, and Marc Benioff.
Salesforce Chairman and CEO Benioff has deemed it the “Holy Grail of Energy” and invested in Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup dedicated to building nuclear fusion power plants.
Benioff was convinced to invest by Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who has also invested in Realta Fusion, a spin-off company from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Khosla views nuclear fusion as an investment that could yield returns up to 1,000 times the initial investment, despite the potential risk of losing all funds invested.
Helion Energy, an Everett-based startup in Washington, focuses on magnetic inertial fusion technology and aims to achieve net electricity production by 2024. Altman has supported the company with a US$375 million investment.
▲ LLNI’s NIF target chamber for nuclear fusion experiments (Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
In August 2021, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) came close to achieving a net energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction, prompting researchers in the US, Canada, and Europe to continue their studies. By December 2022, LLNL finally achieved its first net energy gain from nuclear fusion.
Ernest Moniz, former US Secretary of Energy and current CEO of non-profit research organization Energy Futures Initiative, believes that at least one or two companies could demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion between 2020 and 2029.
While nuclear fusion was once seen as a distant dream, even in a high-risk venture capital space, ongoing technological breakthroughs suggest that the realization of nuclear fusion power generation may not be too far off.
(The first image is of Helion Energy’s Polaris reactor; Image Source: Helion Energy)