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The chase for fusion energy (nature.com)
108 points by bpierre 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 112 comments





PDF version if (like me) you find the animated slide images distracting without actually providing any additional useful information. I only wish this link had been at the top of the article rather than the bottom.

https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-021...



Anyone desiring a more rigorous intro to the subject, I recommend the lectures of PPPL Director Steven Cowley. Like listening to James Bond 007 wax poetic about stellerators ;)

Getting to a Fusion Pilot Plant

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35C0BewtfvA


I'll just say this: there is a lot of obvious fraud in fusion energy. Cold or hot, a lot of nonsense gets billions in funding. I doubt steam pistons blasting liquid vortexes will yield anything other than an expensive mess. And I doubt anything that does not depend on magnetic fields far stronger than what we have now will ever lead to fusion energy being more economical than burning whale oil for steam powered electric plants.

It’s a mixed bag, but plenty of options are theoretically viable. However, it’s much easier to pull off a scam than build a practical fusion device.

Still looking around you can find many seemingly reasonable designs. Using fusion bombs to heat up rock and then extracting energy is completely buildable today, but not currently economically viable. The history of inertial confinement fusion had more to do with validating models of fusion bombs than a realistic energy source, but things have ramped up enough that it’s starting to seem more possible though still unlikely to work any time soon. Outside of that things get odd. Simply firing a fusion bullet scales really well, but runs into serious issues designing the gun. A coil gun in high vacuum might in theory work, but trying to actually build one is another story

Piston fusion is quite similar to inertial confinement in theory. Of course it’s a long shot that’s closer to snake oil than a practical design, but high risk reward long shots aren’t scams as long as the team is upfront about what’s going on. Sometimes physics just doesn’t work the way you think it would. Sonoluminescence is one of my go to examples that seems stranger than fiction.

PS: A liquid vortex is actually one method for building a blanket for steady state magnetic fusion setup. It solves several real problems, but is mostly about economic viability not achieving break even.


How to tell whether fusion-powered electricity is 10 years away:-

1. Lazard has published a (favourable) preliminary levelised cost of energy assessment for it.

(2. Which implies that there have been convincing demonstrations.)

3. Fusion companies are spending their time on working with regulators and explaining their systems to investors (manufacturing, construction, operation, decommissioning and disposal), and their money on bringing up core systems and assuring the public that it is safe.


I debated for a while if I should post this - but decided I had to. I actually built a working IEC fusion reactor in my basement, back in 2005-2006. I got to "first fusion" on Sept. 25th, 2006, and posted a video of the reactor working, on Youtube. I just checked, and the video is still there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g18xpYXamAs

IEC (Inertia Electrostatic Confinement) fusion can be done, with a high-vacuum system, a high-voltage DC supply, and a vacuum-chamber with a high-voltage feed-thru. It is dangerous, but doable, and I believe I had the first working, amateur-built fusion reactor in Canada. One can confirm that fusion is occuring, by using sensitive chemical neutron detectors that workers in nuclear fission plants typically carry. I used BTI (Bubble Technology Inc.) detectors, which look like little test-tubes, and show small bubbles in a gel-like liquid, if exposed to a neutron flux.

My reactor was never able to produce more than 10^6 to 10^7 neutrons per second, which is a very weak neutron field. I used a small "lecture bottle" of non-radioactive deuterium (heavy hydrogen gas), and it worked well. I had to construct a deuterium injection system, using some high-vacuum valves, and a gas-feed-thru on one of the vacuum-chamber ports. The vacuum-chamber itself, and the high-vacuum diffusion pump (which used a mechanical vacuum pump, connected to a device which uses hot-oil vapour) and the high-voltage DC power supply, were all sourced from surplus equipment found on eBay, and imported from USA into Canada. The importation of each item was an adventure in itself.

One needs to put about 15,000 to 25,000 DC volts negative, on the confinement grid, and the vacuum chamber needs to be evacuated to about 10^-4 torr or better. I estimated the device needed mean-free path length of almost a 1 cm, for the D2 ion circulation, which is a very rarified environment.

What is really interesting about fusion, is how difficult it is to make happen. A palladium-wire grid would be better for the spherical confinement grid, but I used stainless steel. (Palladium is expensive, I had no source for it, and I am not Tony Stark...)

But the reactor did produce nuclear fusion events, using the D2 gas, and the high-voltage charge on the confinement grid. This technology was first invented and patented by Philo Farnsworth, an American researcher and inventor, who in the 1930's, invented electronic television. He invented the first electronic TV camera - the iconoscope - and fought with Sarnoff at RCA for years over the patent rights for electronic TV. Farnsworth's IEC fusion reactors also worked, but attempts to scale up the technology were not successful.

The various attempts at creating commercially viable fusion reactors are interesting. We keep getting close - but nothing that produces a useful level of net energy output, has yet to demonstrated, as far as I know. I sincerely hope some sort of breakthru is possible, at some point. My device - and most of the IEC devices - are able to produce a significant amount of neutrons, and research efforts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were able to demonstrate a powerful IEC reactor, which produced an intense neutron flux, sufficient to ablate the walls of the vacuum chamber (the chamber wall looked like swiss-cheese, under electron-microscope examination), so we know this technology is able to produce a serious amount of fusion events.

But taking this approach and using it to generate a net-energy output, has not been possible. My device was roughly 1500 watts in, and 1500 watts of heat out, plus maybe one or two extra milliwatts (or maybe a few hundred nanowatts). Not even enough to really measure.

I have followed all the various attempts to get some net useful energy out of fusion reactor technology, and I truly hope something becomes possible. We seriously will need this technology, and we are so close to having it. I wish all these researchers - public and private - the very best of luck.


Are you familiar with LFTR and if so can you indicate why fusion is practically superior to it? Cost, fuel availability, safety, vessel lifetime, etc.

LFTR scales down, has working examples (fit in a closet in ORNL)

fuel availability: lots of thorium, ignition fuel is a problem though

vessel lifetime: lots of caustic stuff in LFTR, but fusion is high temperature and will suffer vessel degradation from neutrons, won't it?

Safety: LFTR is meltdown proof due to liquid fuel and plugs, and seems to consume all its nuclear fuel (compared to solid rod). Fusion is "clean" but makes the reactor eventually radioactive?

Cost: Fusion is a ???, LFTR is undeveloped, and both will be a decade+ down the road during which solar/wind/battery will get substantially cheaper, moving the goalposts for cost/investment.


Congrats on your experiement!

Lets get to the point, really. The only way magnetic confinement will ever achieve confinement times conducive to technologically useful power output will come from electromagnetic field strengths beyond what we are capable of doing at the present time with bitter superconductor magnets. And should we discover the secret to making this superlative magnetic field, we will need structures capable holding it together without smashing itself to bits. Stronger magnets mean tighter and tighter gyroradii. Every atomic collision pushes the plasma to the edges and there is no magic to stopping it. There is really no such thing as magnetic confinement. The magnetic fields only slow the progression to the walls. It can work if the progression is slow enough. 17 telsa magnets is only a fraction of the strength needed for anything practical. Go for 100 teslas or come back and say it will be another 30 years.

Whoever figures out the hypermagnet will be just one step away from producing net fusion that is useful. I'd say divert all attention to that instead of new tokamaks. We know tokamak will work (economically too), if it only had the secret ingredient of unbelievably powerful magnets.


So I assume you're familiar with the scaling laws of tokamak fusion and can show your work?

Because here's a presentation by the head of MIT's fusion program, who introduces those scaling laws and concludes that the latest commercially-available superconductors are indeed sufficient for net power, from a reactor of reasonable size and structural strength:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkpqA8yG9T4&t=1370s


I never saw Lockheeds "show your work" on their proposal for a fictitious reactor that could supply 100 megawatts from a tractor trailer bed. Yet they got billions of dollars of funding for it. If I had a 100 tesla magnet wouldn't that be useful for tokamaks? Because iter's 17 tesla magnet isn't going to lead to a revolution. It is only another iteration over the JET tokamak which barely had success, but enough success to be a viable lead. If the government listened to crackpots like me they could have saved billions of dollars.

Its pretty simple really. A charged particle when it slams into another will gyrate in a magnetic field. If that magnetic field is twice as strong, the gyro-radius is half as wide. And the containment vessel would require half the volume. It takes many many strikes to fuse two nuclei. That is why it is necessary to have ultra powerful magnets. Because it might take dozens or hundreds of strikes, each one potentially enlarging the radius of the circulating plasma. Maybe stellerators have an edge but I don't see it with my limited knowledge. But simple brute force ought to get 'the job done'.


I'm talking about Commonwealth and Tokamak Energy, which use fields quite a bit stronger than ITER, taking advantage of newer superconductors than ITER.

The relevant scaling law is that tokamak energy output goes up with the fourth power of magnetic field strength. According to the presentation I linked, that allows ITER-level output from a reactor a tenth the volume of ITER.

Assuming that works out, a reactor somewhere between those two sizes should get us to commercial levels.


This kind of goes along with my theme. By the time the expensive experimental reactor is at the end of the planning stage an new magnetic force regime is introduced changing the whole perspective of the experiment. It would be best to scrap those experiments and focus attention on the new technologies because 17 tesla magnets are not the most powerful magnets in the universe and we have a long way to go to find what is possible on our home world.

The magnetic field is the foundation of fusion energy at this time sans xray compression.


Take a breathe...hold....and exhale...now go take another pass at the article, you're far off from it, its basically an answer to the questions you're raising. Then riff on this:

The reply, and article, reference CFS, a public/private initiative by MIT, where the gentlemen whose laws you are referencing had a major breakthrough via a materials science breakthrough that allows the ITER magent you're discussing to be produced a couple orders of magnitude smaller, changing all of the problems.


While I'm generally inclined towards pessimism when it comes to new technology, there is something to be said for when billions of dollars start being invested in a large number of companies chasing the same dream.

One could argue that these funds are being poorly invested, but that begs the question: why now? Why didn't we see this money being 'thrown away' 10, 15, 20 years ago? What's changed that those with the means to make such investments believe that now is the right time to be putting money into long shots?

And so I'm left to have one simple hope: maybe the very rich people have hired people smarter than me to assess if there's a chance in hell this will work. It sure seems like a lot of people suddenly think they can do it.


Seems like a rich man's dream since the 90's with Paul Allen's funding of trialpha. Penicillin wasn't discovered from people throwing billions of dollars of research money around: a discovery that saved hundreds of millions of lives was simply a happy accident found by a pair of eyes that could put 2 and 2 together.

> promises to have commercial reactors ready in the next decade

I’ve heard that before. Are we also going to have room temperature superconductors and usable quantum computers?


Maybe we'll have room temperature superconductors but no promises on how strong the magnets will be developed from it.

If operated at liquid helium temperature: pretty damn strong. You'd be running into issues with materials ripping themselves apart before hitting critical current or critical field.

Possibility is energy will be free so challenge is to lean towards ideas and bias solutions who strive for progress independent of energy constraints

Let that sink in for a moment, there are 17 companies doing research on a hugely important topic with only 2.4billion in funding(disclosed). Magic leap alone has burned more money than that. Theranos has burned almost a billion.

Elsewhere in the world, people have to scramble to get money to do groundbreaking work and in the US you get thrown after you for knowing the right people.

I'm not saying the other places in the world are good places to be. Caring about every penny you spend is definitely not how you want to run a company doing groundbreaking work, but there's definitely a middle ground.


Please don't take HN threads on generic tangents (and particularly not nationalistic tinged ones).

This one wasn't quite as egregious as the other flamewar tangent in this thread (now collapsed) but it's still a change of subject into something less interesting, more generic, and more inflammatory—and that's what the site guidelines ask everyone to try to avoid here. It makes discussion more tedious, more repetitive, and usually nastier.

There's lots of interesting material in the OP and clearly that's what a thread like this should be engaging with.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Why don't you just put that mentioning any country in a less than 100% positive way in a comment is against the rules? There's more and better discussion under the "flame war" threads than the entire rest of the comment section.

I mean, depends on how you slice it and what you count, but ITER had an initial budget of 6 billion and updated total cost estimates between 20 and 40 billion dollars or euros. That one fusion project is probably the most expensive human effort since the ISS and its successor is already being planned.

Yes there’s a lot of dumb venture capital going around, but there’s also a lot of money going towards trying things beyond searching for the next unicorn tech fad.


I would bet $10,000 that the technology behind the first commercial fusion reactor does not come from ITER.

Didn't ITER offer a lot of research positions and resulted in many papers and books on fusion? Think about all the PhD students that studied there. Sounds like ITER is foundational both in knowledge and in talent for commercial fusion reactors. I know that the technical university I was in had mathematicians working on models useful for ITER.

Physicists having been maintained on a payroll will be the only material outcome of ITER, in the end, along with a likelihood of hundreds of tons of radioactive slag to dispose of. (If canceled before they light it up, it could be productively scrapped at a fractional penny on the dollar. Once it's hot, it becomes an indefinitely expensive liability.)

There are few other places just now to train up plasma fluid physicists. The main beneficiaries, though, are the contractors. This is a gravy train that just doesn't quit. The reasons so much money easily goes to it have far more to do with corporate welfare for otherwise mainly-military contractors, and maintaining a population of hot-neutron physicists ready to draw on for weapons work, than any conceivable expectation of competitive power generation.

But the main product of the Tokamak-adjacent projects is lies. They cultivate the confusion between "Q>1" meaning more kinetic energy of neutrons emitted than microwave photons injected and magnets energized, vs "Q>1" meaning electrical power to the grid exceeding grid power injected. There are at least two orders of magnitude between the two Qs. Achieving the former leaves you very, very far from the latter. ITER itself makes no pretense of ever producing so much as one watt-hour of grid power.

Thus, any system resembling ITER (particularly ITER itself) is a technological dead end. A fusion power plant that relies on hot neutrons would necessarily cost many, many times as much to build and operate as a comparable fission plant. Big fission is already not competitive (perhaps mainly from deeply entrenched official corruption, but so what?) and gets less so every day. We have yet to see whether small-scale fission can work, economically. It has failed before.

The Helion and TAE systems would be "aneutronic", generating power electromagnetically, without a side trip through neutrons, heat, and a turbine. They have a chance to be useful, because they would be cheap to operate, even at a small enough scale to leave little scope for official corruption. TAE is taking the harder road, chasing hydrogen/boron fusion, which reactants are both extremely abundant. Helion is chasing hydrogen-2/helium-3, which is more plausibly achievable, but helium-3 is very scarce, so they would need to synthesize it themselves by also fusing hydrogen-2.

The Princeton FRC reactor project, not mentioned in TFA, is working on a shoestring NASA budget, hoping to loft a 2 MW space-probe propulsion test in 2035. That might work, and they would not need much helium-3 for that. They could probably get something done much earlier if ITER were not pissing away all the money, but moving money from public to private purses (as with NASA's SLS and DoD's F-35) is ITER's true purpose.


I don't know what kind of plasma physicists you know, but the ones I know are idealists motivated by a desire to solve one of humanity's grand challenges. They wouldn't want to touch nuclear weapons work with a 10ft pole. To the extent there's a brain drain, it's not to weapons work but to various data science type positions in industry (for twice the pay, FWIW).

As for aneutronic fusion, there are reasons to be skeptical it can even in principle be made to work (see e.g. PhD thesis by Todd Rider). I'd be happy to be proven wrong, though.


Plasma physicists are not, generally, making the decisions on where money goes. I begrudge them nothing, wherever employed: plasma fluid dynamics is the hardest kind of physics, and everyone who proves they can do it deserves mad props. They are not, anyway, particularly who the weapons people want.

Any impossibility found for aneutronic fusion does nothing to improve the commercial viability of hot-neutron fusion. If aneutronic fusion can't be made to work, the outer solar system will remain a lonely place.


Rider's paper includes an appendix with potential ways around his main findings. At least two aneutronic projects (HB11 Energy and LPP) appear to use methods similar to those described in Rider's appendix.

cool story, bro.

It’s true that ITER will not produce net power and that the administrators have misled the public about the difference in Q factors. You can have a reactor which produces more thermal power than you put in to it that is still a net power drain when you factor in the rest of the plant operations to keep it going. All clearly explained in this great video.

https://youtu.be/LJ4W1g-6JiY

There is a real risk that by focusing on the wrong Q factor you sink all your budget in to plants which can never work as a real power plant.

Still I am hopeful that ITER will be sufficiently valuable as a research system that we do move closer to commercial fusion power.


It most probably will come only from ITER/DEMO or similar scale project. Yes, it is drowning in the bureaucracy, politics etc. and in generic market this would be a ripe case for disruption and doing "move fast, break stuff" approach. But the fusion problem is so fundamentally hard that it is simply not possible at all in this case. Core problems like stability, preventing whole assembly becoming radioactive, actual conversion to the electricity are so impossibly hard that startup approach won't handle it, even if they had trucks with free cash queuing outside.

i don't disagree. but there are valuable side effects. like engineering technology learned. a place and economy for physicists to "work". The web came from CERN, think of all the things we got from the moonshot. we get a lot from big science projects if not the end goal.

What about all the physics and engineering knowledge that required empirical and practical experiments to test hypothesis? The technology itself might not be from ITER but the development of the knowledge for it will definitely have been impacted by ITER.

Don't really understand your point.


I think it will definitely contribute. For example SpaceX also could learn from expensive mistakes like the Space Shuttle . I think it will be the same with ITER.

Yes. Don't put wings, flaps, rudder, and landing gear on a rocket.

Except SpaceX's Starship design does include moveable wings/flaps.

I'd call them fins, which are used to orient the rocket, not provide lift.

So a rudder?

Look at the size of the rudder on the space shuttle vs the size of the fins.

The lesson that was (or at least should have been) learned from the Space Shuttle was to not develop things that are obviously from the start bad ideas (as one of von Braun's Germans lamented "they reinvented the wheel, and made it square.")

This lesson also applies to ITER.


What basis do you have for saying that it won't? Offering a fake bet isn't evidence or reason.

Probably because Wendelstein 7-X is making progress at a far faster rate than the ITER model has the current goal, without accounting for delays, for a 2050+ delivery time for the PROTO reactor.

>for a 2050+ delivery time for the PROTO reactor

when a scientist tells you 2050+ it means they don't know and everything is being made up as they go along. It means 'outside the realm of any realistic estimate, but close enough to feel tempting so you don't immediately remove funding'.


Imagine you have a software need that two contractors are working on. One says it will take 2 years. The other says 2 months, and says they are writing code faster.

Except they aren't "writing code faster" but started 8 years later and the industry now has these things like source control, GPUs and cloud computing and a new project is moving far faster with the new tools than the competing, existing project stuck in development hell that is still running in a server down the hall entirely composed Itanium 2 processors of and written in PHP 4.

One project started in 2007 planning activation in 2025 and planning reactions in 2035. The other started in 2015, activated 2017 and steady state reactions have been delayed from the original Sept 2021 plan to 2022. It's not even close the results so far.


Stellarators face the same fundamental engineering showstoppers tokamaks do. They don't suffer from disruptions, but their beta is also very low, and their size will be far too large for them to be economically competitive sources of heat.

Wendelstein is only a plasma experiment not a full reactor.

We need a heck of a happy accident to find the answer.

Just for the comparison, the French submarines Australia didn't want in the end were 65 billions

> Let that sink in for a moment, there are 17 companies doing research on a hugely important topic with only 2.4billion in funding(disclosed). Magic leap alone has burned more money than that. Theranos has burned almost a billion.

> Caring about every penny you spend is definitely not how you want to run a company doing groundbreaking work, but there's definitely a middle ground.

Private business allocates funds toward profit. Apparently, investors don't see much potential return on additional funding compared to, e.g., electric cars, phones, online retail, etc. An investment's value can be calculated, in one sense, as risk x potential profit. Given the latter is very high, investors arguably must perceive the former as very poor, though possibly they perceive that the companies don't need more funding at their current stages (i.e., it's marginal return on additional funding that matters for investors, not total return on all funding).

The people of a country, through government, can allocate funds toward work based on importance and regardless of profit. Such work, such as basic science, is where the market fails. (Probably much of the basic science behind fusion was already funded this way.) Per the OP, we've allocated $22 billion toward ITER. So fusion is pretty well funded.


In my experience, the amount of money invested reflects the collective belief that a given technology is going to succeed and be profitable. Investors will act like fusion research is not worth investing in all the way until someone actually achieves self-sustaining fusion for the first time. Then, funding will rush in and investors will walk over each other like it's black Friday to throw their money at fusion startups, which will start popping up like mushrooms.

It will be just like deep learning. There wasn't really much investment in neural network research and hardware until the field started having some big breakthroughs, at which point cash started flooding in and the community got extremely excited. I think we'll see fusion breakthroughs in the next decade or two, and it's going to be interesting.


... and then the reactors will be seen as very large and very unreliable, and almost impossible to repair due to radioactivity.

Maybe radiation-resistant robots will be the next investment bubble after that.

From my point of view, most of the fusion startups have zero chance of success at delivering practical fusion energy. Some might have spinoff technology that's worthwhile. Just a few might still succeed at practical fusion (Helion is the one I'm least down on).


Or they can just let someone else pay to invent it and take the innovation the last mile.

Investing in the wrong fusion approach will almost certainly just burn money instead of hydrogen.

ITER is a shining example of how to do this maximally wrong. It is a path only to ongoing expenditure, not useful energy.

There are some smaller startups doing interesting things such as using superconducting coils with much higher field strengths. They might be able to leapfrog ITER. If any of them can demonstrate net positive energy, then and only then the human race should throw tens of billions at that.


> ITER is a shining example of how to do this maximally wrong.

ITER is an example of what happens when you dither and drag things out for decades. If member states had made a major commitment to not only fund ITER, but to have it built within 5-10 years and actually done so, it would have been money well spent.

If you wait long enough all designs for anything will become outdated. An operational ITER would have provided, and still can provide, crucial experience and data. But the cost-benefit ratio is now much poorer for the delays.

This is the lesson of SpaceX--not a lesson about financial frugality or simplicity of engineering. SpaceX has spent far more money than will be spent on ITER, and its designs are not known for their elegance. The world is awash in both cash and talent. The lesson is about process and pace and iteration--all that cash and talent is wasted if you don't apply it. Optimize for time. Emphasize process over product, as the former makes for the latter, not the other way around. When you have confidence something is worthwhile, as with ITER at the outset, don't hold back.


I just don't think ITER is really that expensive compared to other stuff like defense, oil subsidies, returning to the moon and so on.

You can't really compare ITER and SpaceX. SpaceX has worked on a breakthrough in engineering, one that had seen research in decades past as well (the DC-X rocket achieved vertical landing from a few kilometers in the 1990s before the project was shut down; they would have almost certainly reached orbit if they were allowed to continue a few more years).

On the other hand, ITER is breaking entirely new ground on the engineering side, and it even requires fundamental research. It is not even known if what ITER is setting out to do is fundamentally possible given realistic engineering constraints instead of idealized models.


Exactly. ITER is more like rocketry was in the 50s. You know it should be doable but there are a ton of details to figure out first. SpaceX could build on decades of experience built by others.

To be fair to SpaceX, all (two) full flow staged combustion cycle engines prior to Raptor were test articles that literally never left the ground.

The Raptor family is a major, major innovation.


> then and only then the human race should throw tens of billions at that.

Yeah we should hold out before spending tens of billions on fusion research... Meanwhile, 1.5 trillion gets spent on a failed fighter jet program...

The amount of money spent on other projects is so, so much greater than that spent on fusion.


Investing in the wrong ~~fusion approach~~ "tech startup" will almost certainly just burn money.

The point GP is making isn't that fusion is a guaranteed win -- GP gave examples of other failures. It's probably their belief that there's more money in fusion than Magic Leap.


Don't forget that ITER is a big research project that tries to answer a lot of questions and put things together into a working prototype. That's not as shiny as doing interesting things in selected areas but somebody has to start building a whole machine. I think by design it will be outdated by the time it's done but that's a good thing. Somebody has to go first and pave the way for the next generation.

Considering the potential payoff of fusion I believe this money is spent way better than than on things like returning to the moon or a lot of defense projects.


ITER is what happens when you focus on a shorter term goal and not a longer term goal.

ITER's goal is fine, except that there's no way to extend what ITER is doing to a power plant that could be economically competitive (not even competitive with fission, never mind renewables). A fusion reactor that could be competitive must take a different approach, like one involving advanced fuels. This would make ITER's goal much harder (and would likely rule out tokamaks entirely), but the long term goal easier.


> There are some smaller startups doing interesting things such as using superconducting coils with much higher field strengths. They might be able to leapfrog ITER. If any of them can demonstrate net positive energy, then and only then the human race should throw tens of billions at that.

Show me examples of startups and private ventures that did completely fundamental research required for their engineering efforts on a product. At least one that wasn't mostly based on technology and research created by the public sector.

I really don't understand how neoliberalism got so powerful as an ideology to force people to think that smaller startups are really better at fundamental, unprofitable research than tax-subsidised government research programs.

There is no place in the neoliberal "free market" ideology for private companies (even less smaller startups) to pour money into expensive research for 10-20 years with the unknown if it's even feasible and possible, much less profitable.


Fusion energy is a very high risk and very long term investment. Meanwhile plenty of billions are being spent by governments and academic institutions (ok, arguably the same thing) around the world on fusion research.

In almost every thread here on fusion someone eventually says something along the lines of "what we need for fusion is a Manhattan project", but ITER by itself is costing more than that in inflation adjusted terms. Fusion has soaked up massive investment and continues to do so.


I'm asking a genuine question, out of ignorance, but - aren't the tech behind Theranos and Magic Leap the kind of thing you can easily patent and protect - whereas if someone discovers how to make practical fusion, they get a nobel prize and now the world knows how to do it?

Fusion is undoubtedly critical to our future, but I think I can see why the investors don't think it's a profit machine in the same way as a new commercial gadget.


If something is patented it means you have to disclose how to do it.

I dont see why you couldn't patent a fusion reactor. You can patent the underlying science, but the physical realization is patentable. If you manage to pull it off, you are probably super rich. However the risk of failing is much higher, and the time horizons are much longer than a silicon valley startup.


Applying generalizations to a unique problem is a recipe to make the wrong conclusions.

[flagged]


Ok, since you obviously don't intend to use this site as intended after the countless warnings we've given you, and this was such an egregious flamewar tangent, I've banned the account.

If you don't want to be banned, you're welcome to email hn@ycombinator.com and give us reason to believe that you'll follow the rules in the future.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


hey, just wanted to thank you for the work you're doing here on HN. Thanks again, have a nice day.

I don’t see why spending more money would have led to anything other than a more expensive failure. There are fundamental physical reasons why controlled fusion is unlikely to be a practical commercial power source. Nature is not impressed by how big your budget is.

As someone who has spent a few years on this problem: what do you think are the the fundamental physical reasons why controlled fusion is unlikely to be a practical commercial power source?

Unlike designing a fusion reactor, or going to the Moon, here nature is fighting you every step of the way. There are a host of instabilities working against confining a burning plasma. It’s not that it’s impossible to create a practical reactor; it’s that mitigating all of these natural processes will lead to a device of immense complexity. The key point is this: even the most optimistic fusion fans say we might have grid power from fusion, if all goes really well, in another 30 years or so. Look at the recent progress in photovoltaics; the only remaining obstacles are in energy storage, which also has seen great progress in the last few years. Is there any serious doubt that in 30 years we could have a solar power economy if we really wanted it? Why, in that case, would we choose fusion instead, even if it worked? It would be more expensive, more prone to failure, more fragiley centralized, and it comes with some hazards: low-level radioactive waste, tritium, and more. So I’m not saying that it’s impossible. It’s not a perpetual motion scheme. However, further expenditure aimed at fusion energy is simply pointless.

Helion is projecting a small amount of net electrical energy out of their next reactor, which they project to come online in 2024. And that reactor is designed primarily for producing He3, which they will use in their follow-up reactors designed for power generation.

So any fusion fans who still say we won't have grid energy from fusion for another 30 years are either misinformed or not very optimistic.


Some brilliant investor-speak from Helion's FAQ:

"A handful of organizations have performed bulk fusion, where a large volume of particles reaches temperatures high enough for fusion to occur on a large scale. [...] none of the organizations that have managed to do bulk fusion have done it in a practical way that can be used to make electricity."


Seems pretty straightforward and accurate to me. Helion is already re-capturing most of the energy from each pulse. I'm not aware of a single other approach that has demonstrated direct conversion from plasma energy to electric energy.

Hint: The United States first demonstrated bulk fusion in 1952.

What are your thought? You have actual expertise to contribute. No need to test the GP.

I see no physical limitations. There are engineering hurdles primarily addressed by materials. Making HTS coils cheaply is a big deal and a WIP problem. Test reactors such as ITER and SPARC need to be built as platforms to experiment with first wall and blanket designs. Making nuclear facilities is expensive. I personally do not see any showstoppers here, just expensive work that needs to be done.

Will fusion ever be economical? I don't have a crystal ball, but properly charging for the economic cost of carbon emissions is necessary before answering that question. I also can't predict how much cheaper reactors would be than test machines and how long they would run for. The science needs to be funded to answer these questions. When society decides these answers are worth 5x F-35s then we'll have our answers.


Thanks! One quibble:

> The science needs to be funded to answer these questions. When society decides these answers are worth 5x F-35s then we'll have our answers.

Isn't society funding ITER for $22 billion, and much else? The American and UK people are investing in some of the companies, per the OP.


The 5x F-35 is hyperbole. ITER is currently being funded and does account for about 80% of the current global fusion research budget. Fair enough, its results will be valuable. US pulling of funding throughout the Reagan era slowed progress by a few decades. We won't make up that lost time no matter how much money we spend. For now all the eggs are in the basket and we wait for the results.

MIT's HTS coil winding is the space to watch now imo. If it isn't all smoke and mirrors then we could see real test reactors for less money than ITER in our lifetime.


Having less money might have increased progress. I tend to agree with my old boss, David Montgomery, that the eagerness to build big machines distracted the community from investigating the basic plasma physics and hydrodynamics that we needed to understand first.

It's not an eagerness to build big machines because they are fun, but out of necessity to push the experimental regime forward.

Given constrained budgets theory has continued to thrive. Cutting edge turbulence models are being made by theoretical plasma physicists. This is a problem no other engineer wants to touch with a 10 foot pole yet has incredibly far-reaching implications for many engineering fields.


See Moon landings and the Manhattan project for an example of what unlimited budget and the best brains were able to accomplish in this country between the 40s and 70s. Then it all went way downhill precisely because of this kind of reasoning, utter lack of vision and ambition, and mismanagement. And even if this were an utter and complete failure in the end, it'd have generated priceless knowledge, and hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern civilians would be alive. No matter how you slice it, this would have been a _way_ better way to spend taxpayer money.

That's if it were a failure. If it were a success, we'd end global warming, attach a ginormous rocket booster to the world's economy without dooming the planet, kick the stool from underneath several authoritarian/theocratic regimes, and who knows what else.


Those were intelligently chosen projects; many more were no doubt rejected. Just throwing money at things doesn't work; beyond the obvious cost, there also is opportunity cost: it takes money from other valuable investments.

What makes you say that management and vision declined? NASA does incredible things, as does NIH, NSF, etc.

> this would have been a _way_ better way to spend taxpayer money.

In order to do research, you need freedom, and political and economic stability, and those require militaries - not solely or most importantly, but necessarily. Sometimes militaries will be misused or used inefficiently, but there is no option to just spend all the money elsewhere.


> Those were intelligently chosen projects; many more were no doubt rejected

It's comparatively easy to say that with hindsight. There was about as much reason in 1940 to predict that making a nuclear bomb was feasible with enough resources as there is today to think the same about fusion power generation. Both started from the standpoint of "theoretically possible, but levels and levels of unknown engineering challenges."


There is a fundamental difference between the two—a difference that meant we knew we could probably build a fission bomb, and, later, fission reactors, but that controlled fusion is and will always be impractical. Nuclear fusion happens spontaneously in nature. The problem is keeping it from happening, and controlling the process. During the Manhattan project there were tragic events were fisson happened accidentally. Fusion is different because you must actively maintain conditions that nature is trying to disrupt.

> Nuclear fusion happens spontaneously in nature.

True, but you mean fission :)


Dang it. Yes, I did. Thank you.

> It's comparatively easy to say that with hindsight.

Yes, and I omitted an essential factor: All the funded projects that failed and are mostly forgotten.

> There was about as much reason in 1940 to predict that making a nuclear bomb was feasible with enough resources as there is today to think the same about fusion power generation.

My impression is that it was believed to be a very likely project, and mostly a race with the Nazis. An excerpt from Einstein's letter to FDR, credited with kicking off the project:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable—through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.

This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.

https://www.atomicheritage.org/key-documents/einstein-szilar...


This is a fantastic comment. Mainly because you said what I was thinking of saying but couldn’t muster the energy.

There might have been a choice even better than war or a doomed fusion program: we could have spent the money on improving infrastructure, healthcare, education....

>(albeit often state-assisted)

The journo always has to point this out, despite SpaceX simply being the cheapest, best option even for government launches.


> In this respect, advocates of fusion technology say it has many parallels with the space industry. That, too, was once confined to government agencies but is now benefiting from the drive and imagination of nimble (albeit often state-assisted) private enterprise. This is “the SpaceX moment for fusion”, says Mowry ...

I don't think that's a good comparison. SpaceX didn't develop ground-breaking firsts like Sputnik and the moon landings; they took something we've done for 50 years and do it more efficiently. Government agencies are the ones with helicopters flying on Mars, who visited Pluto, developed and operate the space telescopes, etc. Fusion energy generation is like the Manhatten Project.


I dont understand this notion that the literal Government is building and flying all of these things and that private companies achievements mean nothing.

Ingenuity was build with multiple non Government contractors.

The Lunar Module was developed and built by Grumman under Government contract. Rocketdyne developed the J2

Boeing/North American/Douglas designed and built the Saturn 5. Why do people attribute all of these vehicles to the Government when they are were contracted to private companies to be built?

Its very strange that people deny that SpaceX created modern reusable boosters and they fall back on the damn DC-X project when a) McDonnel Douglas was the manufacturer of it b) it was a prototype that never made it to orbit, c) is widely considered a failure

Meanwhile SpaceX is absolutely trouncing every other company with Launching ability while Beoing, given every single possible kickback from the Government can't launch their Starliner for another year after already a year of delays.

They have developed the only full flow staged combustion cycle rocket that has ever gotten off the ground, something even the Soviets couldn't manage.


Modern rocketry was essentially invented by a loner that few took notice until WW2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_H._Goddard

might want to actually read the wiki before downvoting


Only governments (used to?) have the financial muscle to bankroll literal moonshots. From that standpoint it didn't matter so much if all the genius engineers are employed by the government or by a subcontractor.

> Why do people attribute all of these vehicles to the Government when they are were contracted to private companies to be built?

Because the alternative doesn't fit their ideological world view.


I think you are taking that point too literally. Yes, of course anything a government undertakes on will be built by private enterprise at some level. However, the heart of these talking points were about how governments bankrolled the financing necessary to make the developments, whereas now it has shifted a little toward private enterprise. If it weren't for the funding, private companies of the past would rarely have embarked on making such things.

> didn't develop ground-breaking firsts

- First full flow staged combustion engine that actually flies

- horizontal flight, vertical landing (belly flop)

- booster reuse on an orbital class rocket


> First full flow staged combustion engine that actually flies

Indeed, and I'll observe that the significance of this one is often lost on more casual observers.


Yeah, and besides, beyond the fact that the claim of "no groundbreaking firsts" was easily falsifiable, I found this one funny:

> took something we've done for 50 years and do it more efficiently.

One can argue that this is "all" that happened in AI in recent years. We took something that was arguably done before, in some similar way or shape, and made it practical. But this is HUGE. It's not a minor accomplishment! It may very well be harder than doing some prototype for the first time.


I know this is included in booster reuse, but it demands being emphasized:

SpaceX is landing rockets at sea on comically small platforms.


Yeah that was so funny to read that about the company that was the first to demonstrate reusuable boosters!

> SpaceX didn't develop ground-breaking firsts like Sputnik and the moon landings; they took something we've done for 50 years and do it more efficiently.

Efficiency gains and ground-breaking firsts aren't mutually exclusive. For example, I've personally invested in several aerospace startups, and the general public is not remotely aware — even now — of the extent to which SpaceX's efficiency gains have utterly revolutionized space access. It's no exaggeration to say they've driven a step function change in the sorts of companies it's possible to build in this industry.

Very often, ground-breaking firsts are only achieved once efficiency along some axis passes a critical threshold; I'd argue it's fair to compare fusion to SpaceX in this regard.


And also consider that most of SpaceX funding comes from contracts from NASA, rather then investors or profits.

SpaceX has done 130 launches from Falcon 9 demo onward.

This includes 25 Dragon cargo launches (24 successful, and include two COTS demo launches) and 5 crew dragon launches, (two demo, one in-flight abort test, and 2 operational launches). There have been a few unmanned NASA launches.

So, it's not really correct to say NASA is what's holding them up. They have launched a lot of comsats for other companies, defense payloads, smallsats, foreign government launches, and 29 Starlink launches.


Although they do seem to be shifting to more commercial flights now that launch costs are lower and the results are more predictable.

And I'm not sure if you consider launching starlink to be "commercial", if you considered it to be an internal customer of the launch service then it seems like it should count.


>SpaceX didn't develop ground-breaking firsts like Sputnik and the moon landings

I would say the ground breaking things were done by amateurs like Mr Von Braun as children playing with rockets.

What governments(Hitler first, then US and Russia) did was escalating something that was already proven and worked, and that was proven my amateurs.

The flights of Otto Lilienthal or the Wright brothers were extremely short, but they were the groundbreaking things that governments later escalated very fast.

I certainly believe that break even will be proven by private companies, not by Governments bureaucracies that continuously say that fusion in 30 years is reasonable.

After breakeven is proven, there will be a tsunami of investments from Governments just like with aviation or rockets.




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