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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Is This The Breakthrough Fusion Researchers Have Been Waiting For?

Is This The Breakthrough Fusion Researchers Have Been Waiting For?

Fusion power may have just had the long-awaited breakthrough its backers have been waiting years for. A small secretive company in California called Tri Alpha Energy has been working on fusion power for years. But for Tri Alpha, like many other firms and government research bodies in the space, the trick has been getting the superheated gas needed for fusion power to stabilize long enough to have any real results.

Now though, Tri Alpha has built a machine that forms a high temperature ball of superheated gas and holds it together for 5 milliseconds without decay. That tiny timeframe is enough to get backers of the technology excited as it represents a huge leap forward in comparison with other techniques tried in the past. As one investor in Tri Alpha put it, “For the first time since we started investing, with this breakthrough it feels like the stone is starting to roll downhill rather than being pushed up it.” Related: Oil Price Recovery Seems Far Away As U.S Stockpiles Increase

The Tri Alpha team still needs a vast increase in temperatures to successfully create net energy gain with a fusion reaction, but if they can do that, the economic payoff would be enormous. Current approaches to fusion power take more power than they produce, but if Tri Alpha can eventually produce a method of fusion power that is commercially viable, the energy produced by a plant would theoretically be three to four times as much as what is produced by a conventional nuclear power plant.

In addition, while fission power has to operate through heating water for use in turbines, fusion power could theoretically power generators directly which would make it an even more efficient form of power. The result could be power costs that are only 10 percent to 20 percent of the generation cost for a typical nuclear reactor (assuming comparable construction costs). Related: California Oil Bill Defeated

There has been a significant amount of funding put into fusion energy in recent years including a $10 million funding round for fusion start-up Helion Energy back in July. Still, the problem with fusion has always been that it is a high risk investment where the term “technical leap forward” does not begin to describe the challenge. Still with so many different parties working on fusion energy from firms like Tri Alpha to universities like MIT, something significant may finally be happening in the space.

Tri Alpha’s breakthrough is exciting for exactly that reason. The biggest innovations, the ones that change the world, are not easy – they are very hard and usually take years or even decades of research. It’s not clear if the new Tri Alpha machine will be the approach that finally works, but the fact that the company is trying new approaches and getting successful trial results matters. In fact, even Tri Alpha’s competitors seem to be taking notice. Related: Is OPEC Too Big To Fail? Not Anymore

Jaeyoung Park, head of the rival fusion startup Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation said of the Tri Alpha trials, “Until you learn to control and tame [the hot gas], it’s never going to work. In that regard, it’s a big deal. They seem to have found a way to tame it.” If Tri Alpha’s competitors are saying that, then it is certainly time for the world to wake up and take notice of the firm’s progress on a crucial piece of the clean energy puzzle for the future.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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