Fusion energy promises almost unlimited, inexpensive, clean energy.

That’s a pretty big promise.

Today we sit down with Satoshi Konishi, co-founder and CEO of Kyoto Fusioneering, and we talk about what it is really going to take to develop commercially viable fusion power and the role that startups have to play in that process.

We talk about the emerging public-private research partnerships, who is pulling ahead in the fusion race, and  we dig into the long history and near future of fusion energy

It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • Why fusion energy is much older than you think
  • Why fusion energy dropped out of the news and why it’s back
  • How to raise venture capital for moonshot startups
  • The three core components to a fusion power that form Kyoto Fusioneering’s business model
  • A strategy for standardizing when technology moves quickly
  • How recent fusion energy headlines have been misleading
  • Why we have a fusion energy startup cluster in Japan
  • The Japanese public attitude towards fusion
  • How the fusion industry will develop over the next five to ten years
  • The biggest misconception about fusion in Japan
  • One way to solve Japan’s deep tech scaling problem

Links from the Founder

Transcript

Welcome to Disrupting Japan. Straight Talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Today we’re going to talk about fusion energy. Now, for the past several decades, fusion has been touted as the best possible solution to the world’s energy needs. It’s a promise of clean, safe, inexpensive, and virtually limitless energy.

So, what’s not to love?

Of course, making that dream a reality is not exactly a simple matter. Today, we sit down with Satoshi Konishi, founder and CEO of Kyoto Fusioneering, and we talk about the state of fusion energy today, the problems that still need to be solved and the role that startups have to play in making fusion energy a commercial reality.

And if during our interview, it sounds like I’m sometimes kind of bubbling over in geeky excitement, well, it’s because I am. Fusion energy is something that’s fascinated me since I was in high school. It’s just such an interesting and important set of technologies, and it’s some genuinely cool physics as well.

Anyway, Satoshi and I dig into both the history of fusion power and the current challenges being faced by both universities and startups alike in bringing it to commercialization. Why the most viral headlines about fusion energy tend to be really misleading, what’s needed for more effective public private partnerships and fusion, and of course, we also dive into how Satoshi sees fusion energy developing over the next 10 years and the real trigger that will determine when and if we will see a world powered by fusion.

But, you know, Satoshi tells that story much better than I can. So, let’s get right to the interview.

Interview

Tim: So, I am sitting here with Satoshi Konishi of Kyoto Fusioneering, who’s working with researchers and startups around the world to make fusion energy a reality. So, thanks so much for sitting down with us.

Satoshi: I’m very happy to just talk with you. Thank you very much.

Tim: Well, it’s my pleasure. And before we get deep into the fusion technology, my understanding is that Kyoto Fusion hearing’s focus is on the materials and the precision engineering that are needed for fusion research.

Satoshi: Yeah, that is partially true, but what we intend to do ultimately is that to make the anti-fusion plant to make fusion energy. But what makes fusion energy well is not resource, but small amount hydrogen, but big machines very precisely made. So, when need special materials, we a special fabrication technology. We have a very precise assembling, and we also have to be very careful to make the plan to be safe. So, everything just needs very careful, very dedicated, sometimes exotic technologies that everything needed for fusion energy is our business.

Tim: Well, that’s what I find so fascinating. So, much of fusion research is really, everyone is building their own components. Everyone is on the cutting edge of research. But Kyoto Fusioneering is not only doing the research and developing this, but you’re actually selling these components to other researchers, right?

Satoshi: Yes, because our company is still small, we still have about a little over a hundred people that is not a huge, huge company. So, that we can start with the sales of the, say, a small piece of the material small device to facilitate the fusion experiment. And at the other end of our business, we provide a consultation, how we can make a fusion plant to be safe, how we can evaluate the value of the fusion energy economically. So, the kind of the consultation, again, does not need a fortune to spend.

Tim: So, tell me about your customers. Are they research labs or the universities? Are they other fusion startups?

Satoshi: Yes. So, we do have business with all of the customers, as you have suggest. We just work with the universities, the researchers, small business mid-size, big companies. And even for the national project, everywhere that they are pursuing a fusion, we can provide the materials, component design, and the consultations.

Tim: And before we dive into the energy, I want to talk a little bit about you.

Satoshi: Myself.

Tim: Yes. You’ve been involved with fusion research for a long time now, right?

Satoshi: Yes. Yes. I’m sorry to say that I have spent it four decades, 45 years almost on fusion.

Tim: Well, actually, and let’s clear that up for our listeners. That fusion being used to produce energy is not new. The first reactors were in the 1950s, I think.

Satoshi: Ah, yes. And believe it or not, fusion was found earlier than the fission.

Tim: Really?

Satoshi: Yes. Some smart guy had found that that sun is broadening by the fusion energy and also fusion reaction to make the hydrogen atoms get together makes the energy that was also found in 1930s. So, very many people has known it for a long time.

Tim: But like the first fusion reactors, the first Tokamak reactors were in the fifties, right? Or was it before that?

Satoshi: Yes. Even before that, people started to try the fusion by making some kinds of plasma discharge back in the late forties, early fifties. And Tokamak was one of the early invention. But before Tokamak came, Americans had started to study the discharge machine that was called pinch was still a letter, and develop very many different types of plasma devices that intended to make a fusion energy to be real.

Tim: So, why was there relatively little progress, or at least the public is not aware of much progress well over the last 60 years?

Satoshi: That it’s partially our fault, but not our fault. We made a progress, but that just target for a little too far. Then we have expected a little more difficult. It was a little too distant, but now we are approaching the real top now. Yes.

Tim: So, yes. What’s led to this sudden, seemingly sudden, what’s led to this recent interest and excitement about fusion then?

Satoshi: That does not come from the technical scientific reason that we believe that the technical scientific progress has been a kind of a study. Yes, as you say, sometimes it stopped, sometimes that was fast, sometimes slow. But one of the big step that we are experiencing now comes from the business world, not the science. So, businessmen are aware that now that we can no longer burn oil and coals and other fossil fields in the recent, say 10 years or so, that we are aware now that we will not run out of fossil surface, but run out of the room for the carbon dioxide emission.

Tim: I see. Actually, getting back to your own experience, so you’re a professor at Kyoto University and Kyoto Fusioneering was spun out of Kyoto University about five years ago.

Satoshi: Four and a half, yes. October, 2019.

Tim: And the startup and the university, are they still doing joint research? Are there research agreements or IP sharing agreements in place between them?

Satoshi: It is collaborating with the universities and other top level researchers in the world is one of our major missions still.

Tim: Is there ever any conflict between the pure research and the startup side? And what I mean by that is the pure research is all about sharing and being open and publishing results. And on the startup side it’s a lot about engineering and intellectual property and trade secrets. Do you ever find those in conflict?

Satoshi: I do not really believe so. There are certainly some kinds of difference of the view on discoveries, the scientific achievement, but we are very keen to publish our findings to the public in academic conferences and journals. And there was something that we have to just keep as intellectual property for share because we are spending our money for that. But the discovery to make our finding to be available for other researchers who to make a much faster progress. So, we’re not hiding much, only just a small part of the key of the technology that is intellectual property to be protected.

Tim: How do you focus on what’s going to be protected and what’s going to be shared? How do you make that determination?

Satoshi: For instance, if we have invented our new material that would survive in a very harsh environment in the fusion device. The material itself, it’s content even is not a secret. We report it in the academic meetings, but how to make it that’s risky is a kind of a secret. And also the supply chain, we can prepare the high purity of the material, how we can control the quality and how we can fabricate that kind of supply chain organization is our property.

Tim: That makes a lot of sense. Another thing I want to ask, you’ve been very successful with fundraising. You’ve raised around a hundred million dollars altogether. You’ve got, as you mentioned, a little over a hundred staff, but startups like Kyoto Fusioneering, these really ambitious capital intensive moonshot startups often really struggle to find venture capital investment. So, can you tell me about the kinds of investors that you attracted to Kyoto Fusion hearing?

Satoshi: That is a good question. Actually, I’m academic person and I’m not quite good in fundraising self. So, the most important secret of mine is we could find a good people to organize a fundraising team. Actually, the one thing that made us successful so far, we appreciate the understanding by our investor very much. One of the reason we have been successful make us understood is simply because we have been very technically honest, we have been very careful in explaining the status of the fusion technology. And in a very detailed, one of the reason I believe that our communication with the investors has been very successful.

Tim: Well, let’s talk a bit about the business side of things and the business model. Obviously there’s a huge number of engineering challenges involved with building fusion plants and as I understand it, there are three core components that you are focusing on.

Satoshi: Yes, we have focused on the fleet technology field. One is a plasma heating device. Before starting the old plasma experiment, we have to have the hot plasma to start it ignition. So, we have to heat it to a millions of degrees that is not easy temperature to achieve. And we have one of the best researchers and engineers and fabrication team for plasma heating device, the name of that device that gyrotron. And that has originally been an invention of by Russians, but Japanese companies has made a very good technology to make it work at a very high performance with a good reliability. And we are providing platinum heating device technology to our customers. And the second and the third are coming together. We are trying to make fusion energy convergent to make plasma energy into the electricity or heat or hydrogen or other forms of energy. So, that is the system that we call the thermal cycle because fission makes the heat as a primary energy and that should be converted to a more consumer friendly form. And the other is a fuel cycle. Plasma is fed by the hydrogen isotope to continue to burn, but after that we have to treat the exhaust gas. Unfortunately, the plasma burning is not very efficient.  More than 90% of the plasma will not burn and just exhaust it. We have to recycle it to continue its burning. So, those are two systems. Some cycles and field cycles are inevitable for any kind of fusion experiment. And so before coming to the commercial fusion energy, many fusion researchers, many fusion companies will have to have those two systems. So, we are providing that technology to start the hot plasma and thermal cycle and the fuel cycle. Those three technologies we’re currently providing.

Tim: I’m just fascinated by this balance between the research and the engineering challenges. So, I mean, obviously these three components the plasma heating, the thermal cycle, the fuel cycle are essential any fusion reactor. But with the state-of-the-art changing so quickly with designs and materials changing as new research evolves, how do you decide how to commit engineering resources to this? So, if you are developing, say just for example the plasma heating system and new innovation happens in another research lab, how much do you have to retool?

Satoshi: That’s really the good question. I have to say, any of those technologies are not completed yet. And we still have to make considerable progress even for the gyrotron. Gyrotron itself is in a good maturity, but we have to make it more powerful. That should run a little longer and it should be a little more power efficient and also a little cheaper. Some of our competitors will also have to make a progress. So, if were just stop our development will be left behind very quickly. So, we have to continue to compete and add the goal now the realistic and commercial available machines so that we are still on the way.

Tim: So for example, I’ve noticed that you’re a supplier to both UK’s Atomic Energy Authority and to the ITER Project. So, the equipment you would supply those two organizations, would it be the same machines or they’d be kind of different versions of the same machines depending on when it’s ordered and what it integrates with.

Satoshi: So, those are the currently designed machines. So, our current technology can respond to the request, but the real commercial fusion plan would be something beyond that. So, we have to improve all of those technologies. A little more higher performance, a little more improved form.

Tim: Everything’s step by step.

Satoshi: Yes, we do not think the quantum jump of technology, what we need there, just a patient development to make the performance better and better. And we have a very strong feeling that we can achieve this technological goal in a reasonable time.

Tim: That’s awesome. And let’s talk about that because I want you to help me clear up something to our listeners that the press seems to be really confused about. Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot of headlines about finally getting more energy out of the reaction that we’re putting in. But this is just the plasma efficiency or the fusion queue and things are actually a lot more complicated than that.

Satoshi: Yes. Thank you for raising the point. Probably you understand much better than the average understanding about the fusion. That the large queue is one of the parameters we often use, but we have to just explain it a little more. We have energy multiplication. If we put one energy that we expect five to 10 times larger energy coming out, but currently that ratio is about one to one or slightly above one. So, we have to make the five to 10 times in the case of the laser fusion, we also have to make it much larger because the laser itself needs the electricity to make a light fault energy. So, we have to make the ratio 10 times, a hundred times larger.

Tim: Well, and it goes back to like every single one of those components, those core components you mentioned, the heating, the plasma, the whole fuel cycle, the thermal cycle, each of those has its own efficiencies. Each of those has its own either energy requirements or energy losses.

Satoshi: It is not perfect. We can simply just improve those efficiency, improve this multiplication amplitude of the input to output energy ratio.

Tim: You were mentioning before, like 10 or 20, but I know, so companies like Kyoto Fusioneering are working on getting the plasma heating more efficient, the thermocycling more efficient. So, efficiencies are improving. So, what are the final Q values that we’re targeting before things will be commercially viable? If we’re around one now, where do you think we’ll need to be before we see commercial production?

Satoshi: Be at least maybe five. We can make a reasonable energy output to sell, but in any process of energy generation, we always have to discard about half or two third of base energy as a waste heat. So, that we need at least maybe five to 10 times larger energy. People would like to have meaningful net output for electricity to sell. We don’t have to have a hundred times, a thousand times larger, but at least we have to have five to 10 times.

Tim: Let’s talk a bit about Japan and the state of fusion research and fusion startups in Japan because it seems that there’s a lot of really interesting things going on here right now. I mean, there’s obviously what you and Kyoto Fusioneering are doing. Ex-fusion is starting up, there’s helical fusion as well. And I’m curious, what was the trigger that led to this cluster of fusion startups in Japan?

Satoshi: We still are far behind other more advanced countries like US or UK where much more fusion status were actively working. We still have on only several below five. One of the reason that we had a very strong national program and still it is quite active. We have made a good progress in the technical development mainly by public sectors focus on ITER and also the so-called the broader approach that is a collaboration with the Europeans working toward the demo plant beyond ITER, those are the very strong public programs. And that we did have a very small university research activities that has always been a very good quality. So, both of the technologies, big public sectors research works and the small, the university research is, they have also and our companies that to come out. But still, we did not have a very strong reason to make small private fusion companies in Japan. But now things are changing that we are now heading to a little earlier, a little smaller, a little past fusion development led by private activities.

Tim: And what about the Japanese public attitude towards fusion? Japan famously has kind of a nuclear allergy on fission reactions. Does that extend at all to fusion or?

Satoshi: I do not think so. Yes, there are some people that they just confused or intentionally just mix the efficient and the fusion. But I do not hate fusion nuclear, fission technology in Japan particularly. We need the nuclear energy for sure because we do not have energy resources on this small island. But yes, we do have some, as you said, some kinds of nuclear allergy in Japan. But that simply means that Japanese are very sensitive for safety. They’re not only a nuclear technology, but also that we are very safety oriented people. I believe that this country still is one of the safest country in the world. Probably you would agree with that.

Tim: I totally agree with that. Yeah.

Satoshi: Sometimes we see some exceptions, but we are very serious in a safety, fusion has been kept very safe. But unfortunately we had a very bad extent that goes by the tsunami and the big earthquake. I share the Japanese enthusiasm to make everything safe and safer. So, fusions is not exception. We have to be very careful about fusion technology to be very safe.

Tim: Looking at the road ahead. Last year you announced plans to build an experimental proof of concept power station of a few dozen kilowatts. Is that still in the works?

Satoshi: Yes. We are now constructing that experimental facility in Kyoto. We did not have any fusion reactions involved. That is a thermal cycle experiment having a simulated fusion power coming to the fusion energy converter that is called the blanket. The blanket is device surrounding the burning plasma and starting from the blanket with just circulate the heat to convert its energy to electricity and hydrogen. So, that’s the technology we are developing and demonstrating in the next three years or so.

Tim: I see. So, it’s not the fusion ignition, it is improving and perfecting the thermal cycle system.

Satoshi: Exactly. But that technology is agnostic to a very many different plasma types like a laser, like a Tokomak, like stelleroters. There are very many kind of the plasma devices can be attached to our thermal cycle. So, once any countries or companies would make a fusion reaction to be available for a conversion, we can provide our technology to just make the fusion energy to be supplied to the consumer.

Tim: Excellent. Let me ask you, I was going to ask you these questions separately, but I think I’m going to combine them into one because I think the answers will intertwine. Can you explain your path to profitability over the next five to 10 years and explain to me how you see progress on fusion reactors moving towards commercialization over the next five to 10 years.

Satoshi: For the next five to 10 years, I would have to explain a little more careful. In the next five to 10 years, I do not believe that any of the fusions energy would really be commercially available and competitive with the current energy sources like oil or gas or just even as wind and solar. To compete with them will not be possible in the next five to 10 years. In the next five to 10 years, I’m pretty sure that some of the fusion challenges in the world would declare some kinds of successful achievement of the fusion reaction for sure. And Kyoto Fusioneering will also provide a technology to make that kind of fusion reaction to be sustainable and to be available for the consumer product. Those kind of things would be achieved in the next five, 10 years. And after that, maybe a selected number of plant concept for a fusion would be the design and start construction for the demonstration of the actual energy supply. But before going to that stage, the competition and the development has already been started for the commercial fusion. So, we have to make our fusion technology to make realistic fusion energy to be available and that needs a supply chain that in the machine that needs a plant technology. And that would give us a business chance for Kyoto fusion engine because all those, the technology development needs machines and we are providing that technology.

Tim: And I suppose as we move forward, there’s going to be a lot more standardization around best practices and engineering practices as well.

Satoshi: Yes. But currently we are enjoying our technology diversities. We have a very many different types of the fusion challenges in the world and we are trying from a little different aspect, but we are not actually competing, but we are trying the very many different types of technology. And eventually, maybe not very many, but the selected number of the technology would survive. So, that would be a kind of a natural selection. We don’t have to select only one winners, whereas they have two, three candidates. When we have watched the nuclear fusion reactors, we did have a water code, we did have a gas code, metal code and back in the 1950s, sixties, and we still have those technologies, but that the economical winners was the light water reactors.

Tim: So, let me follow up because it sounds like you were saying that we’ll probably start to see some pilots and demonstration reactors in 10 to 15 years maybe. So, when do you think we’ll see commercial deployment of fusion reactors?

Satoshi: It depends on the economical situation and the energy supply situation as well. I would say that, so-called pilot plant and that I do not know the real definition of the keywords. Some say it’s a demo plant, some say a pilot plant, some say it’s just commercial reactor, but the first reactors would not be very economically attractive for sure. It may cost maybe a $1 $10 for kilowatt hour. So, that may not be very attractive.

Tim: Well, it’s a pilot. It’s not supposed to make money, right?

Satoshi: Yeah. Yes, yes. But if you remember the very first age of the video recorders or even the television set, they are very expensive, but some rich people started to use them so that the first reactor, of course, would be all very expensive. That would decrease its cost very quickly. But we do not know when competitive cost would be possible for a fusion.

Tim: We talked a bit about some misunderstandings on Q and about Japan’s nuclear allergy and things. So, what’s the biggest misunderstandings that you think the public or investors have about fusion energy?

Satoshi: That is a good question that actually that I am a specialist on the tritium that is a radio nuclear of the hydrogen. And that is one of the very infamous world because really the water has been accumulated in the Fukushima site with 1 million tons of the water. But that misunderstanding about tritium is one of the things that we have to correct. We have to know that each of us have a tritium atom in our body, each of us. Tritium is the natural ingredient of our body and our environment. Some of all the people say that the artificial tritium is bad and the natural tritium, they don’t care. But tritium is a tritium and we actually are just living in the world full of the radiation, the radio nuclear. That is one of thing we have to correct misunderstanding.

Tim: So, people should have a little bit more nuanced understanding of what radiation is in general.

Satoshi: Exactly, yes. So, I have to say the fusion is not free from the radiation. Now we do have a technology to control it safely, but we have to be careful. We have to be very serious in making a fusion reactor to be safe.

Tim: Excellent. So Satoshi, before I let you go, I want to ask you what I call my magic wand question. That is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all, the education system, the way people think about risk, people’s attitudes towards science and radiation, anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Satoshi: Well, one of the thing I would just suggest is another, it doesn’t need a magic wand. It’s a very simple improvement. We have lots of good studies in the Public Research institute and the universities and those research infrastructures are one of the thing we cannot afford. We need a high voltage, high powers and large amount of energies to just conduct our fusion experiment that needs fortune. And then we’ll need a nuclear research facilities that is not also affordable for a small fusion startups that is not for only fusion, but also every types of the small companies not only in Japan, but very many places in the world.

Tim: It seems to me like a lot of that is achieved by partnering with universities like you and the team are doing.

Satoshi: Exactly. So, we have enjoyed the partnership and the collaboration with the university, but not a big one. We need big concrete buildings and with the big doors that would let the trucks to come and the sitting cranes and big power supplies. So, those are…

Tim: That’s more than a university can provide.

Satoshi: Yes. So, that is one of the thing we need at this stage to start of small companies, it’s currently possible, it is publicly funded, publicly supported, also there’s many of them a ventures capitals can now invest, but from the real startups to mid-size, like a hundred to 500 people that is sometimes called this valley to make a small site to midsize needs a big facilities and it’s infrastructures. And for the nuclear facilities particularly, it is very difficult.

Tim: That seems to be the case in a lot of different industries. Like you were mentioning, the valley of death, it’s too late to get the tiny check sizes. It needs a lot of capital, but it’s too early to do like discounted cash flow evaluations. It’s a challenge.

Satoshi: Yes. But in Japan there is a lot of interesting facilities is publicly founded or even private, big companies own that kind of big facilities. If startups can share and use those facilities, we can make some interesting technical achievement, even innovation. So, far Japan has been very good in the fabrication technology. We are still trying to make this technology to be available for the world, but also we do have facilities for midsize, large size production, so that can be shared with the startup companies.

Tim: Yeah. And recently so many Japanese universities and large enterprises are prioritizing startup partnerships and startup spin outs. And so hopefully we will see a lot of progress in that direction.

Satoshi: Yeah. Yes, I hope so. But again, the prioritize is the keyword that can work either way. We still need diversity of the technology if we would set one now, that may be okay, but we may lose that chance to be something interesting.

Tim: Well, listen, Satoshi, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate it.

Satoshi: Oh, thank you. And I enjoy talking with you very much. Thank you.

Outtro

And we’re back.

So in case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of in love with the whole idea of fusion energy. On paper, it seems perfect, it’s nearly unlimited, relatively clean energy, but the excited physics geek in me is tempered by the skeptical investor in me, who is quick to point out just like Satoshi did, that there are a lot of important problems that have yet to be solved.

Even in the ITER project we discussed, although it has a huge and unquestionable scientific value since that international effort to build the fusion reactor began in 2013, the budget is ballooned from 6 billion euros to 22 billion euros. And the completion date has been pushed back from 2016 to 2025. And further delays in budget overruns are considered to be very likely.

No one said this was going to be easy or inexpensive.

Kyoto Fusioneering’s business model as a small startup playing this space is frankly a brilliant one. So, much about eventual fusion reactor design is unknown, but by being the first to bring precision engineering to reactor components and subsystems, as they become stable enough to do so, the company is able to both help push the research forward and to establish themselves as an essential part of the fusion energy supply chain.

First with the research projects and eventually commercially.

It’s not exactly the standard model of selling picks and shovels. Since those components are still subject to rapid technology and design shift, but executed well, it’s a great strategy for commercializing and emerging technology.

So, when will commercial fusion become a reality? Well, as Satoshi points out, we are probably at least 10 to 15 years away from the technology being ready. And after that, it’s really about the economics. It’ll be a question of whether fusion reactors can be constructed and operated to generate electricity more cheaply than other forms of energy.

Of course, it’s hard to know so far in the future, but the engineering that Kyoto Fusioneering is bringing to the supply chain will play a big role in making that affordable.

The road ahead for fusion energy is not an easy one, but I’m rooting for Satoshi and the team at Kyoto Fusioneering. And I think most of humanity is too. It’s hard to imagine a better future than one powered by abundant clean fusion energy.

 

If you want to talk more about nuclear fusion and the role startups are playing in our energy transition, Satoshi, and I would love to hear from you. So, come by disruptingjapan.com/show 214 and let’s talk about it. And hey, if you enjoy disrupting Japan, share a link online or just tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is free forever and letting people know about it is the absolute best way you can support the podcast.

But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.