THE SECRETIVE, BILLIONAIRE-BACKED PLANS TO HARNESS FUSION
Inside a laboratory near Vancouver in British Columbia, an alarm is blaring. In the middle of the industrial warehouse stands what looks like a cannon from a spaceship, about five meters long and festooned in wires.
None of the lab’s red-coat-wearing technicians seem fazed by the noise. The siren, which alerts workers to don protective earmuffs in case of a blown fuse, precedes every test “shot” on this prototype nuclear fusion reactor – and these engineers have performed well over 50,000 shots over the past five years.
That speed – currently, 50 to 100 tests a day – would not be possible within the bureaucracy of a public lab, where the most prominent research in long-awaited fusion energy is being conducted. But this is a little-known company called General Fusion – funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and free to pursue technological revolution at its own, breakneck pace.
General Fusion is just one of a pack of private fusion firms to catch the attention of physicists and investors. Unencumbered by red tape, these venture-backed companies believe that they can find a faster, cheaper way to fusion than government-sponsored projects, and some very influential people agree: besides Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel are also backing firms at the forefront of fusion development. Some of these enterprises are rather shadowy: the company Allen is invested in, Tri Alpha, operated for years almost entirely in secret – until recently, it didn’t even have a website.