Michl Binderbauer has made an audacious promise. Within the next decade, his company, TAE Technologies, will create a nuclear fusion reactor that delivers energy to the power grid.
“It's not false confidence,” said Binderbauer, the CEO of TAE. “The building blocks we need — they’re coming.”
Nuclear fusion is the process that makes the sun shine. At temperatures higher than 25 million degrees Fahrenheit, our star mashes together hydrogen atoms to form helium to generate energy. Harnessing that power in a controlled setting would give the world a major tool in the fight to get to net zero emissions by midcentury, one that comes without the downsides of nuclear fission (such as long-lived nuclear waste).
TAE, a California-based company that formed in 1998, aims to make a mini-sun that fuses hydrogen and boron atoms at nearly 2 billion degrees Fahrenheit to generate net energy for the grid by the late 2020s. Other companies have similar ambitions. A 2021 survey of the industry conducted by the Fusion Industry Association and the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority found that most private fusion companies expect the technology to be supplying electricity to the grid in the 2030s.
It’s an aggressive goal, particularly for TAE, a company that would have folded years ago by conventional metrics. The company has pursued a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor for 24 years without delivering a commercially viable product — though to be fair, no other company or research group has been able to generate more energy than the test reactors consume either. “The rate of progress would have to be remarkably faster than has ever been accomplished in fusion,” said physicist Stewart Prager of Princeton University.
But fusion is no ordinary industry. During the Cold War, scientists first harnessed fusion to build thermonuclear bombs, the most powerful weapons known to humankind. Following successful bomb tests, they began to consider how to release that energy not in deadly explosions, but in a controlled manner for the benefit of humankind.
Fusion would provide a zero-carbon, low-waste form of energy that could help the world meet its climate goals.Photo: TAE Technologies
On paper, fusion seems to offer the answer to humanity’s energy needs. Engineered as envisioned, fusion would be a self-sustaining process, where fusing atoms produce enough energy to fuel more fusion indefinitely, all with zero carbon emitted.
As Binderbauer tells it, it was a happy accident that he ended up working in fusion. A physics major at the University of California, Irvine, he got into Johns Hopkins University to study astrophysics in graduate school. But after touring the school, he found that he disliked the Baltimore area. While Binderbauer mulled over his next steps, a former professor, Norman Rostoker, invited him to become his next Ph.D. student.
Rostoker had been studying fusion since the 1950s. Over decades, he had guided some 40 graduate students through research topics in the field. Within three weeks of working with Rostoker, Binderbauer discarded his astrophysics dreams to devote his studies to fusion. He loved how the work combined hands-on engineering and complex physics concepts. “I got deeply bitten by the bug,” he said.
In 1998, Binderbauer, Rostoker and a few other fusion advocates founded TAE during an ebb in government funding. Early on, TAE relied on what Binderbauer called “altruistic” funding. More recently, it has begun to sell secondary technology to stay in business. In 2018, TAE spawned a biotech company based on particle accelerator technology developed for fusion.
After decades of research and tests, Binderbauer said that fusion power is about to truly come of age. Investors seem convinced, too. TAE has raised $880 million, and rival companies have gathered comparable funds. Commonwealth Fusion Systems in Massachusetts has raised $1.8 billion, and Helion Energy in Washington has raised $2.2 billion. This money builds on more than $40 billion of government funding since 1953.
The industry has drawn comparisons to private space exploration. Like rocketry, fusion power research began in the public sector before capturing the attention of venture capitalists. But space travel was long proven before SpaceX ever formed. In contrast, the government’s many fusion projects have never produced net energy.
The world needs to have a realistic view of fusion's promises.Photo: TAE Technologies
Fusion is an unprecedented commercial gamble, according to journalist Charles Seife of New York University, who has covered fusion since 1995 and authored a book about the field, “Sun In A Bottle,” in 2008. “I’ve never seen this amount of money flowing without even a single product,” he said. “[There are] no prototypes. Can you think of another industry where billions of dollars have been spent upon a promise of something that hasn't been built yet?”
Prager counters that fusion researchers have made significant progress in recent years. “I think it’s legitimate for all this money to flow into fusion,” he said.
The field has made strides in controlling plasma, the state of matter required for fusion to occur. Plasma, which consists of a fluid of charged particles, tends to expand and blow apart. The sun contains its plasma due to its immense gravitational field, but puny human-made plasmas require other techniques.
TAE accelerates its plasma in a ring-like trajectory to keep the material together. Collaborating with Google in 2017, TAE developed AI software that controls the plasma on short timescales to keep it stable. In 2021, Commonwealth made headlines for creating powerful superconducting magnets that could enable more compact and cheaper fusion machines.
Though TAE and other companies think fusion will become viable in the next decade or so, Prager thinks 20 years is a more realistic timeline to produce net electricity from fusion. “I do have a fear that after five, 10 years when these companies don't deliver, it could smear the field a little bit,” said Prager.
Indeed, fusion already has a “boy who cried wolf” reputation. Physicist Homi Bhabha’s 1955 prediction that fusion power would exist within two decades has become a running joke about how fusion is always 20 years away.
Despite flashy announcements from companies and the recent rush of investments, Seife remains skeptical. He said that the industry suffers from a Silicon Valley-esque “tunnel vision.”
“It’s the culture of startups, where they believe they can bully nature into compliance,” said Seife. “It works when you're talking about regulations or code, but physics is harder to bully.”
Instead of pouring money into fusion, Seife thinks the money would be better spent on more near-term strategies for mitigating climate change. For example, a United Nations report published this year shows that existing clean energy technology as well as demand-side tweaks could cut carbon pollution between 40% and 70%.
Binderbauer said that TAE has consistently met incremental goals, which include a recent demonstration that they can hold a stable plasma for 35 milliseconds. Now, the company is constructing a $250 million machine called Copernicus that’s expected to go into operation around 2025. TAE’s goal is to have Copernicus fusing hydrogen at 150 million degrees. While these tests will not produce net energy, they will demonstrate the machine's viability to do so. After that, it will pivot to fusing hydrogen and boron, which requires a higher temperature, but may offer other engineering advantages.
Binderbauer’s motivation also comes from what he said is a “moral obligation” regarding climate change. He and his wife have two children, and they often talk about protecting their future. “I'd like to at least be on the side that says, ‘Hey, I may have failed, but I tried. I really tried hard,’” said Binderbauer.
“I do have the deep conviction that fusion can be done,” said Binderbauer. “I wouldn't sit here wasting my time on this if I didn't absolutely believe we can do it.”
At the very least, the influx of cash means the industry has bought some time to test those beliefs.
This post has been updated to reflect that the Copernicus test will not use deuterium and tritium, nor will it generate net energy. It will demonstrate the conditions needed for that.
Sophia Chen is a freelance journalist.