Hi folks, it’s Brad with the latest edition of the Fully Charged newsletter (sign up here). Last week was a rather grim one for Silicon Valley’s fervent community of environmentalists and clean energy advocates. With the sweep of a single executive order, President Donald Trump unwound the Obama-era framework of regulations designed to combat climate change and announced that he was “putting an end to the war on coal.”
But not everyone in high-tech is ready to return to the age of fossil fuels. Mike Cassidy, who was formerly vice president at Alphabet’s X research lab and headed Project Loon, its high-altitude balloon-based internet access initiative, is ready to try the nuclear option.
Though Cassidy remains an advisor at Google, he has quietly started a new company, Apollo Fusion. On Friday, a website for the firm, which previously consisted only of a definition of the phrase “nuclear fusion,” was updated to include a vision statement that gives a tantalizing peek into Cassidy’s plans.
“We’re working on revolutionary hybrid reactor technology with fusion power to serve safe, clean, and affordable electricity to everyone,” reads the site. “Apollo Fusion power plants are designed for zero-consequence outcomes to loss of cooling or loss of control scenarios and they cannot melt down.”
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The website asserts that Apollo Fusion’s reactors will be inexpensive to build, cost competitive with traditional means of generating electricity, and flexible enough to serve both small villages and large cities. It says Cassidy is working with Ben Longmier, the founder of a company called Aether Industries, which made equipment for high-altitude research and was acquired by Apple in 2015. Longmier also has a PhD in plasma physics and advanced degrees in physics and nuclear engineering.
When contacted last week about the new venture, Cassidy was spare with details of the company’s plans though not with his pointed views on clean energy and the environment.
“I believe that global warming is real and I believe we are just dumping tons and tons of CO2 into our atmosphere that is heating up the globe,” says Cassidy, who started and sold four separate technology startups over the past 20 years, including an instant messaging service for gamers, a search engine and an online travel site Ruba, which Google acquired in 2010. “Environmentalists have struggled for a while over whether nuclear power is good or bad. I think most of the more thoughtful environmentalists now view nuclear as good. If you can find a way to do nuclear power that doesn’t have the downsides, the risky, runaway meltdowns, or things like that, it’s a real win for the planet.”
Only a few nuclear power plants have been constructed in North America over the last few decades, as politicians and communities worried about accidents like Fukushima and 3 Mile Island and the implications of terrorist attacks like 9/11 aimed at nuclear facilities. Apollo Fusion’s technology appears to be designed to assuage those fears. It’s developing a “subcritical hybrid reactor”—a fusion-fission reactor that doesn’t a achieve sustained nuclear reaction and that draws neutrons from other sources, such as deuterium, an isotope that has an extra neutron and can be distilled from water.
Cassidy is starting Apollo Fusion outside of Alphabet. Although he says founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are “super enthusiastic,” they are not investors, and he declined to say who is backing the company. The website also says Apollo already has “an agreement to deliver power to our first international customer.”
Apollo Fusion isn’t the only startup trying to safely harness the powerful nuclear fusion reactions that occur in stars. Helion Energy, based in Redmond, Washington, took an investment from the startup accelerator Y Combinator and Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management in 2014. It’s developing a truck sized fusion reactor using pulsed magnetic fields and deuterium extracted from water. GeneralFusion, based near Vancouver, Canada, has the backing of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, while TriAlpha Energy, which bills itself as the “world’s largest private fusion company,” has raised $500 million from Goldman Sachs and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.