Seeing Silicon | Why Sam Altman and other tech magnates are banking on fusion - Hindustan Times
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Seeing Silicon | Why Sam Altman and other tech magnates are banking on fusion

Feb 18, 2024 08:00 AM IST

We haven’t been able to calculate the carbon footprint of a ChatGPT query. But Silicon Valley is looking at fusion as the sustainable answer to its AI models

When Sam Altman talked about fusion at Davos, it reminded me of a decades-old science fiction trope. As a sci-fi author, I know all that there is to know about fusion power — a human-made Sun that offers limitless power, an energy solution to all imagined sciences and technology.

TOPSHOT - This undated handout image taken and received by the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST) on December 1, 2023 shows the JT-60SA, the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor constructed to date, before its planned inauguration in the city of Naka, Ibaraki prefecture on December 1. Harnessing nuclear fusion, the same process which powers the Sun, has been described as potentially humanity's best energy source for the future but the technology is in its infancy. (AFP) PREMIUM
TOPSHOT - This undated handout image taken and received by the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST) on December 1, 2023 shows the JT-60SA, the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor constructed to date, before its planned inauguration in the city of Naka, Ibaraki prefecture on December 1. Harnessing nuclear fusion, the same process which powers the Sun, has been described as potentially humanity's best energy source for the future but the technology is in its infancy. (AFP)

From terraforming Mars to spacecraft fitted with fusion reactors to even transferring consciousness between bodies, we authors have used fusion as the answer to all freakishly large energy requirements.

So, when after a rather operatic boardroom drama at the Open AI office in the Valley last month, the hottest tech celebrity in the world talked about fusion, it made me sit up and wonder why. Fusion energy, Open AI CEO Sam Altman announced in an interview with Bloomberg during the World Economic Forum in January, was one of the two most important currencies of the future after computational intelligence.

What’s changed for Altman is ChatGPT. The year 2023 saw an AI boom after OpenAI’s commercial AI system, ChatGPT, exploded into the market. While we learn to adapt to and live with the language learning model, we are yet to realise the true energy cost required to run it. An AI model relies on thousands of specialised computer chips (the reason NVIDIA’s stock prices rose more than 208% last year). Each of these chips drinks up the energy of a few US households — not tiny San Franciscan apartments but Texan-sized houses.

All AI servers are power-hungry devices, writes Alex De Vries, a PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and founder of Digiconomist.com. In a paper released in October 2023, De Vries estimated that by 2027, the worldwide AI-related electricity consumption could increase by 85.4-134 TWh (terawatt-hour) of annual electricity. That’s the annual energy consumption of countries the size of the Netherlands or Argentina.

In a world concerned about climate change, the energy that the servers of the tech industry consume is its best-kept secret. According to UN estimates in 2021, the tech industry was responsible for a whopping 2-3% of global carbon emissions, which is at par with the aviation industry’s environmental impact. So far, the real carbon cost of our digital lives has been flying under the radar of our concerns around air travel, oil, deforestation, and veganism.

We haven’t even been able to calculate the true carbon footprint of a ChatGPT query. But a heavy energy cost exists, and the tech industry realises that. To feed a growing army of AI models, Silicon Valley needs clean energy — and a lot of it — for the chips and servers that will run future AI systems.

That’s the reason that all the last decade, everyone from Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, and Dustin Moskovitz has been putting their money into different fusion startups. Altman also joined this long list of Silicon Valley CEOs looking to fuse some disruptive energy into fusion. In 2021, he put $375 million into a Redmond-based fusion startup called Helion Energy that was first funded by Paypal founder Peter Thiel.

The real-life tech of fusion is tricky. Fusion generates energy by forcing lighter atoms to bond together and form new particles, releasing massive energy from the leftover mass. Given that all nuclei are positively charged, atom mating is a tough thing, requiring massive amounts of energy (like inside a star). The challenge to produce more energy from the fusion process than it takes right now to create in a reactor is called breakeven or Q=1. Then there’s specialised, costly equipment to extract this energy from the fused atoms and the safe disposal of byproducts like helium — that one made me laugh — and nuclear waste.

On the other hand, the reward is a steady, clean source of energy for all the electricity needs you might have. Perhaps that’s what tempts the rather dreamy, disruptive founders who live on the West Coast. And governments too.

In December 2022, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced a nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than was used to create it — a breakeven. This year, the US Department of Energy has announced a $42 million investment in advancing fusion to companies. Japan has inaugurated JT-60SA, a six-storey-sized machine housed north of Tokyo, which will experiment with nuclear fusion. Another International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is under construction in France, formally signed in 2006 by India, the EU, Russia, China, South Korea and the US.

And then there’s the startup industry. While government laboratories across the world have put in decades of careful work in fusion power, nimble startups use this research to engineer new machines and bang atoms together in a commercial race to produce fusion energy. According to a report by the Fusion Industry Association, the fusion industry attracted a total of $6.21 billion in investment in 2023, up from $5.8 billion in 2022. Helion’s one, then there’s Zap Energy, Xcimer Energy, Longview Fusion Energy Systems, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Focused Energy — all aiming for the 2030s to be the decade that will bring fusion to the market. Microsoft has already purchased hypothetical energy to be produced by Helion Energy in 2028.

But why not sustainable alternatives like solar, wind or even fission that powers current nuclear plants, you may ask? Cheekily, I feel the answer to that also lies in our imagination. Tech magnates grew up on the same sci-fi stories you and I did and with their optimism and can-do attitude want to pursue the riskiest, most rewarding, apparently steadiest source of boundless energy.

We want nothing less than to create our own Sun. And no, I won’t add an Icarus analogy here. Like the Valley’s founders, I remain optimistic about fusion as I head back to my cosy reading nook and find another sci-fi read — to find the secret sauce that next-gen startups will be made of.

Shweta Taneja is an author and journalist based in the Bay Area. Her fortnightly column will reflect on how emerging tech and science are reshaping society in Silicon Valley and beyond. Find her online with @shwetawrites. The views expressed are personal.

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