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The founders of Amazon and Microsoft are putting their fortunes into little-known fusion energy companies. Jonathan Frochtzwajg digs into a story that has strange parallels with fiction. General Fusion is just one of a pack of private fusion firms to catch the attention of physicists and investors. Unencumbered by red tape, these venture-backed companies believe that they can find a faster, cheaper way to fusion than government-sponsored projects, and some very influential people agree: besides Bezos, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel are also backing firms at the forefront of fusion development.

After decades of slow progress and massive investment, some fusion power researchers are changing tactics You can accuse fusion power advocates of being overly optimistic but never of thinking small. Fusion occurs when two elements combine, or “fuse,” together to form a new, third element, converting matter to energy. It is the process that powers the sun, and the fusion world's marquee projects are accordingly grand.

A day after announcing his party's plan for the environment and the economy, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau along with candidates Jonathan Wilkinson, Terry Beech, and Adam Pankratz chose to visit General Fusion today to highlight the importance of Canadian investments in clean technology R&D.  It was a great, engaging discussion.

General Fusion is a small company trying to solve a big problem. Our team of 65 (physicists, engineers and technologists) is working on proving that our approach to fusion is the quickest and most practical. We’ve got quite a few talented, smart people here, but we know that there are many talented, smart people elsewhere.

What if fusion became commercial? Nuclear fusion, says Stephen Hawking, could “provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming”. The technology’s promises are many, but how would the arrival of commercial fusion affect the design of our energy system?

Traditionally, fusion energy research has meant huge efforts like the $20 billion multinational ITER project and $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility. But that may be changing. In unassuming industrial units across North America, Europe, and elsewhere, small teams of scientists and engineers supported partly or entirely by private finance are working out novel approaches to fusion. Their goal: to design financially viable power reactors simpler and cheaper than the government-funded behemoths and to build them faster. Some of the new technologies look bizarre, but venture capitalists are convinced that each holds at least a slim chance of an enormous payoff.