As a child I spent my recesses with my nose in a book. I read everything I could about humanity’s next high-tech frontiers – including high-energy particle physics, energy generation and space travel. Nuclear fusion was especially exciting. It not only had the power to change matter from one element to another, but it could also provide a nearly limitless source of energy. I dreamed of playing a role in expanding human potential for the next million years.
This fascination grew into a mission when, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I watched trains haul mountains of coal every few days into a heating plant that only provided enough energy to keep a portion of the university warm. I imagined this process at a global scale. I thought back to what I learned as a kid, and that just a few of those train cars of fusion fuel instead of coal, could power the entire United States for a year with no climate-impacting emissions. I decided I wanted to play a direct role in creating that future.
As I developed a strong understanding of fusion, its potential and its challenges, I turned my focus to the engineering needed to commercialize it – to take it from a science experiment to a working, cost-effective machine. The challenges in technology and experience seemed too great to overcome in a single step. But what if, instead of attempting to make a single giant leap forward, we could make significant but reasonable steps towards commercial fusion energy that would provide huge benefits for humanity along the way?
This process is how other big ideas have been and continue to be commercialized. Computers started as giant, expensive machines used only in niche applications. But they provided value in those applications, which justified reinvestment. Through that process, they moved into offices, then to homes, and now they’ve become so effective and efficient that we each have one in our pocket in the form of smartphones.
Given the arduous path forward to make fusion reliable and cost effective for energy, it seems most rational to constantly grow value along the journey. At SHINE, we decided to initially focus on the highest-value product of fusion: the neutron. With some analysis, it became obvious that customers were willing to pay up to a million times more per reaction for neutrons versus the energy produced. We saw that this could provide a commercial bridge to build an ecosystem that got better and better at fusion over time. We are different in that we are mastering near-term applications of fusion to pave a stepwise path to the end goal of fusion energy, all while creating tremendous social and economic value along the way.
The race to abundant, commercialized fusion energy is on. I view that race as a marathon, not a sprint, and humanity is still just learning to walk. Our phased approach allows us to build the sustainable economic engine, human capital and technical momentum needed to become strong runners, and ultimately finish the marathon first.