David Kirtley: The Alternative Energy Solution
For years, fusion energy – which is generated by forcing two atoms together until their cores merge, releasing a shattering amount of energy – has held the promise of a world where electricity could be cheaply produced without the radioactive waste, carbon pollution or geopolitical entanglements of oil and nuclear-fission reactors. Fusion reactions power the sun; it is stored solar energy in compressed organic matter – the ancient remains of photosynthesis – that we burn in fossil fuels. But even among top physicists, re-creating a fusion reaction on Earth – a "star in a bottle" – was dismissed as "the fuel of the future – and always will be."
Helion Founder and CEO David Kirtley is part of a team that developed the "Fusion Engine," a power plant the size of a mobile home that, they hope, will soon be able to power a small town for 10 years using a minuscule amount of raw materials – about a pickup truck's load of isotopes. It's a downscale of power generation roughly analogous to how the tech industry took centralized supercomputers the size of houses and put them in our pockets.
Recent attempts to capture the power of fusion – like the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a 35-nation effort in the South of France – have sought to maintain a steady reaction in a vast central power plant, where fusion heat is used to boil water to turn turbines to create electricity. This indirect process never sat right with Kirtley: "I thought, 'You're catching a star and you're using it to boil water?' "
Here's Kirtley's major insight: A fusion reaction that
repeatedly explodes in the center of a magnetic field wouldn't require boiling
water at all. "We don't want a campfire," he says, "we want a
diesel engine." His team is inching closer to a machine that generates
more energy than it consumes, which they expect to hit in a decade. And if they
don't, he says, one of a half-dozen other teams working on fusion will. "In
the next 10 years, we're generating electricity from fusion," he says. "I'm
just excited as a human being by the plethora of fusion approaches that are