May 262011
 

Venture capitalists and funding agencies aim to get some bang for their alternative fusion bucks, but a lot of unknowns remain

When it comes to radical energy solutions, an extreme long shot is a nuclear power scheme that would combine fusion and fission. Existing nuclear plants all run on fission, the splitting of heavy nuclei such as uranium, to produce power—not to mention tons of hazardous waste. Fusion joins together light nuclei, as occurs in stars and hydrogen bombs, but practical fusion-power generation has yet to be demonstrated despite decades of research. One of the newest ideas is a hybrid plant in which fusion would trigger atom splitting in spent nuclear fuel, boosting the energy output and “burning up” the waste.

Yet that hybrid approach looks positively mainstream alongside some other speculative fusion work that has recently attracted attention and venture capital. Online chatter about alternative fusion research reignited this month when the ambitiously named General Fusionannounced it had raised $19.5 million from investors including Amazon.com‘s founder Jeff Bezos. General Fusion’s planned machine would look right at home illustrating asteampunk novel
Compared with the billions that governments are sinking into projects such as theNational Ignition Facility (NIF) and ITER, $20-or-so million is a pretty cheap lottery ticket. But is there really any chance of a payoff? Is any concrete progress getting reported? Here’s a quick snapshot of three of the projects.

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