Amazon's Jeff Bezos invests in the search for the holy grail -- fusion power

Last Updated May 6, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

Who said Japan's Fukushima disaster would kill investor interest in nuclear?

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos certainly hasn't been scared away. Bezos, through his personal VC fund Bezos Expeditions, invested this week in General Fusion, a start-up company that aims to harness fusion power -- the Holy Grail of clean, cheap and infinite energy. Bezos, Canadian oil company Cenovus Energy and other VC firms invested $19.5 million into General Fusion in a funding round that wrapped up this week.

The concept of nuclear fusion isn't new -- it's the process that powers the sun, after all. Here on earth, hydrogen isotopes are heated to extremely high temps, allowing them to collide and fuse together to form helium. The reaction releases large amounts of energy, which can be used to generate electricity. Theoretically, anyway.

The fuel used in fusion is found in abundance in seawater. And unlike nuclear fission -- which powers today's reactors, like those in Fukushima -- fusion doesn't carry the risk of catastrophic meltdown and doesn't produce long-lived, heavy-metal radioactive waste. Which means no more political debates over Yucca Mountain. [Ed. -- you mean once we've dealt with all the high-level radioactive waste that's already piled up in cooling ponds around the country.]

Fusion in the here-and-now

So far, the world's most successful fusion reactions have occurred in H-bomb tests -- that would be the ka-boom part. Instances of controlled fusion have been much rarer and almost as brief as weapons tests, and none so far have produced more energy than it took to spark the reaction in the first place.

General Fusion is using a hybrid of two fusion technologies -- magnetic and inertial confinement -- to trap a plasma of hydrogen isotopes in a magnetic field and then compress it to high temperature and high-density conditions. This approach compresses the target more slowly, which allows the energy for compression to be delivered by much less expensive technology than lasers.

The company not only says it can achieve controlled fusion, but that it can do it for less than $1 billion, and that it can finish its full-scale prototype power plant in four years. That's a helluva a lot cheaper and faster than ITER, the world's largest and most advanced experimental fusion reactor (currently under construction). ITER, funded by a consortium of governments, is projected to cost nearly $21 billion and take at least 10 years to build.

Faster, cheaper and the potential to solve the biggest problem in the world? Sounds like the ideal gamble for a billionaire like Bezos. Curiously, I haven't found any interviews where Bezos mentions an interest in clean energy or nuclear fusion. Maybe he's just been eyeing Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates, who's poured millions into nuclear pet project TerraPower, a start-up that's trying to build a small-scale reactor powered by its own waste.

First Seattle-area billionaire across the clean nuclear-energy finish line wins the future!