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The secret U.S.-Russian nuclear fusion project

Posting in Design
Electricity machine. An artist's rendition of two Tri-Alpha fusion reactors that would generate electricity directly without requiring a turbine. These two would have a combined output of 100 megawatts, less than a tenth of a conventional nuclear station but physically much smaller (for scale, note the person in the front right side), and suitable for local power provision. (Click on sketch to enlarge).

A small California nuclear fusion company, well known for being secretive, has landed backing from the Russian government.

Rusnano Group, a state-owned venture firm, invested an undisclosed amount in Tri-Alpha Energy, Forbes reported earlier this year.

Nuclear fusion is the elusive Holy Grail of energy. It fuses atoms together rather than splits them apart as today's nuclear fission does. Proponents say that fusion portends limitless, safe, environmentally-friendly energy. Scientists have been working on it since the 1950s, but it has always remained 40 years or more away. The fundamental problem is that it takes more energy to run fusion than what fusion can deliver.

The Russian investment is the latest round of financing for Tri-Alpha which, prior to the Rusnano backing, is believed to have raised over $140 million from Goldman Sachs, venture capital firms including Venrock, Vulcan Capital and New Eneterprise Associates, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and others, as I reported in my Kachan & Co. study on alternative nuclear technologies in late 2011.

Forbes adds that Tri-Alpha's investors include Hollywood actor Harry Hamlin and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Tri-Alpha is based in Foothill Ranch, Calif, near Irvine.

The company reveals little about itself and does not have a website. It is working on a form of fusion called "aneutronic," which delivers electricity straight from the fusion process without the use of a turbine. Most fusion projects call for creating heat that drives a turbine that generates electricity, as does fission.

Another U.S. company, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is also developing aneutronic fusion, collaborating with physicists from Iran. Aneutronic fusion tends to use different atoms - hydrogen and boron - than does "conventional" fusion, which uses two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium.

Other companies developing fusion reactors include Lockheed Martin, General Fusion of Burnaby, Canada (which has venture backing from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as well as from the oil industry) and Helion Energy which has a design called a Fusion Engine that furnishes electricity both via turbines and directly (although Helion does not call its process "aneutronic").

Helion is connected to MSNW, the company that is also developing a different fusion machine intended to propel spacecraft.

Many fusion watchers believe that one of these private projects, operating under commercial pressure, will crack fusion before any of the large inter-governmental projects do. Those include ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France and NIF (National Ignition Facility) in Livermore, Calif.

Sketch from Tri-Alpha powerpoint presentation.

Watch for my upcoming post on the similar challenges facing fusion and fission development.

Pursuing fusion, on SmartPlanet:

— By on May 5, 2013, 11:24 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure