Technology

Type One Energy Raises $29M to Work on a Crazy Fusion Device

A Wisconsin-based startup called Type One Energy says it’s closed an over-subscribed $29 million financing round to launch its effort to commercialize a weird kind of nuclear fusion device known as a stellarator.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the $2 billion clean-energy fund created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, partnered with TDK Ventures and Doral Energy Tech Ventures to co-lead the investment round. Other backers include Darco, the Grantham Foundation, MILFAM, Orbia Ventures, Shorewind Capital, TRIREC and Vahoca.

Stellarator fusion devices rely on a pretzel-shaped torus of magnets to contain the plasma where fusion takes place. They have a design that’s strikingly different from, say, the giant tokamak that’s being built for the multibillion-dollar ITER experimental fusion reactor in France, or the laser-blasting device at the National Ignition Facility in California that recently hit an energy-producing milestone. Some have gone so far as to call stellarators the “fusion reactor designed in hell.”

The twisted structure of a stellarator device is meant to create a stable magnetic field for plasma containment without having to use massive circulating electric currents. Plasma physics labs have been building stellarators since the 1950s. The billion-dollar Wendelstein 7-X reactor — which began operation in Germany in 2015 — is currently the world’s largest experimental fusion device of the stellarator type.

In parallel with experiments such as ITER and Wendelstein 7-X, commercial ventures are pursuing the dream of harnessing nuclear fusion — the phenomenon that powers the sun in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation. Fusion is touted as a relatively clean, carbon-free source of energy, potentially fueled by deuterium extracted from the world’s oceans or helium-3 mined on the moon. But it’s been devilishly difficult to develop a workable fusion power plant.

Plans for commercial fusion typically call for smashing atoms or ions together under pressures and temperatures high enough to transform a smidgen of mass directly into energy. Fusion Energy Base’s litany of companies runs from Agni to Zap — and includes Commonwealth Fusion Systems, another startup in Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ portfolio. But Type One Energy is one of only two stellarator-centric companies on the list. (The other is Renaissance Fusion.)

Carmichael Roberts, who co-leads Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ investment committee, said it’s worth making a multimillion-dollar bet on stellarator technology.

“Fusion is the ultimate energy source, and its successful commercialization will be a huge leap towards achieving clean and abundant energy for everyone,” Roberts said in a news release. “Advances in stellarator science, including Type One Energy’s ability to execute a stellarator development project, provide the basis for a very exciting and promising path to practical fusion on the grid in the coming decades.”

In conjunction with the infusion of capital, Christofer Mowry will take over as Type One Energy’s CEO. Mowry is Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ senior adviser on fusion, and previously served as CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. He said Type One “represents a special opportunity.”

“This team’s knowledge and credibility gives Type One the unique ability to effectively integraete recent global advances in stellarator-relevant technology and to deliver a fusion power plant without another costly, large-scale science validation machine,” Mowry said.

The newly announced funding brings Type One’s total investment since its founding in 2019 to $30.7 million. Type One said the added support will fuel rapid expansion of the company, which currently has fewer than 10 full-time employees.

The company’s partners include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “We look forward to collaborating with Type One Energy to realize the advantags of HTS high-field fusion magnets to their stellarator technology,” said Dennis Whyte, the center’s director.

Type One hasn’t specified a target date for commercialization, other than to say that its FusionDirect timeline for developing a viable Fusion Power Plant, or FPP, will unfold over the coming decade.

“The company will build a relatively low-cost but high-performance stellarator Risk Reduction Platform over the next several years,” Type One said in an emailed statement. “The RRP testbed will be used to validate several FFP engineering design choices and confirm the fidelity of its stellarator plasma physics models and simulations. The RRP testbed will support the ongoing primary mission to design and develop the FPP, which has already begun.”

It goes without saying that it’ll take more than $29 million to get a commercial fusion power plant up and running — but the newly announced funding should take Type One well beyond square one.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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