â€‹Walking with Michl Binderbauer into his 2-acre laboratory feels a bit like taking a factory tour with Willy Wonka. In one corner Binderbauer, chief executive of TAE Technologies, shows off a new machine that blasts cancer tumors with a neutron beam. Engineers huddle in a control room. Beyond their window: Norman.
That’s the name of TAE’s 100-foot-long prototype nuclear fusion reactor, a magnificent assemblage of stainless steel vessels, electromagnets and particle accelerator tubes. Once every eight minutes Norman emits a clang, as it transforms 20 million watts of electricity into a cloud of 100 million degrees Celsius plasma and blasts it with beams of protons (the simplest form of hydrogen). They smash together with enough force to fuse into helium—releasing copious amounts of energy in the process. “It’s a function of violence,” says Binderbauer, 50, with a smile.
TAE, known until last year as Tri Alpha Energy, has raised $600 million, most recently at a valuation of more than $2 billion. Investors include the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, the Rockefeller family’s Venrock, and Big Sky Capital, family money of billionaire stock trader Charles Schwab. They’re betting that TAE will be able to tame fusion into a source of electr