The sum of $1.6 billion for Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a start-up founded in 2018 that works with nuclear fusion; the 750 million to TerraPower, a company backed by Bill Gates and whose technology could one day allow us to produce electricity by consuming radioactive waste… The young shoots of the world of the atom are popular.
According to PitchBook, a US data provider, venture capital funding for innovative nuclear-focused companies hit record highs in 2021 at $3.4 billion. By way of comparison, the sector raised “only” US$381 million in 2020 and did not exceed US$131 million in 2012. “We are witnessing the conjunction of two phenomena”, analyzes Greg De Temmerman, PhD in experimental physics and general manager of the think tank Zenon Research. On the one hand, the low level of interest rates in recent years has led investors to take more risks and therefore turn to “deep tech”, that is, long-term technological solutions that require a lot of upfront capital. On the other hand, business people, investors and governments are now aware that we will undoubtedly need nuclear power to meet the climate challenge. Thus, the United States and France have recently launched tenders that combine public and private money with the aim of reinventing the sector.
“To use the International Energy Agency’s message, half of the technology solutions we would need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 are not yet on the market,” recalls Philippe Stohr, director of nuclear energy at the Atomic Energy Commission. more innovation and R&D.” And all the better if, in passing, innovative technologies make it possible to dispense with Russian gas. In the United States, the war in Ukraine seems to have served as a stimulus: billionaires such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Peter Thiel are opening their portfolios to support next-generation nuclear power.
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This ocean of fresh money benefits in particular fusion research, whose objective is to reproduce on Earth, in a controlled way, the chain reaction observed in stars. “Two approaches coexist”, specifies Dominique Vignon, president of the Energy Hub at the Academy of Technologies. The first develops ‘tokamaks’ to confine plasma in an extremely powerful electromagnetic field. This technology is the subject of a race between ITER – the great international project launched in 1986 – and a handful of start-ups that bet on its agility to win.
The second approach uses lasers: “In August 2021, a major breakthrough occurred in the United States. The National Ignition Facility teams managed to achieve what is called a self-heating plasma, which generates more than enough energy to create it. It’s an important first step towards fusion,” says Greg de Temmerman. However, for many scientists, this work will still take years and may never come to fruition.
A risky return on investment
“Investors are not fooled. They know very well that in deep tech, 90% of the start-ups they support will collapse. It’s part of the game. Winning the bet”, analyzes Greg de Temmerman. Sometimes, the return on investment comes even earlier, indirectly. “In the merger, communication revolves a lot around the production of electricity but some investors may have decided to be part of the adventure for other reasons, for example a technology developed in the global process but that could serve other industrial uses”, confirms Philippe Stohr. So in the field of fusion, venture capitalists are closely following the development of high-temperature superconductors, materials that conduct electricity very well. This type of technology would theoretically reduce losses from our national network or revolutionize medical imaging.
“When we look at nuclear startups, we see that many are trying to look a little further than producing electricity,” notes Greg de Temmerman. For example, heat producing reactors (HTR) are making a comeback. Start-up Jimmy Energy uses nuclear fission to replace burners used in the industry with mini-reactors that run on uranium. The Naarea start-up is developing a molten salt reactor capable of utilizing our stockpile of radioactive waste to operate. “We use plutonium from reprocessing and depleted uranium from the fuel enrichment process. With the quantities that France has, we could produce electricity for thousands of years generating only radioactive waste for a lifetime. In short,” says Joël Guidez, scientific advisor to the project. .
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Of course, there are still many technical problems to be solved: molten salt reactors cause corrosion. Some operate on highly enriched uranium, as do HTR reactors. “In the United States, there is a debate about who could provide this material,” says Dominique Vignon. However, these tracks feel more mature than the fusion. A molten salt prototype is recently operating in China. And Jimmy Energy expects first deliveries in 2026. Enough to attract the attention of new investors.
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