A nuclear technology company and a medical isotope company have merged. In fact, they have teamed up again since they were founded by the same man, Greg Piefer. But there’s a fuller story here about the maturation of the fusion energy industry and one man’s mission to deliver a socially breakthrough energy technology through a development path that delivers social value every step of the way. Could this be the Elon Musk of Energy?
Long term vision based on short term value
“I created this four phases to be a more rational approach to the merger, ”says Piefer. “Because you not only have to make fusion energy work technologically, but also have to develop a unit that can deliver complex nuclear projects at relatively low cost, you have to be really good at the regulatory environment and you have to get really good at inexpensive maintenance and the construction of machines. “
Phoenix and SEEM TO BE started together, founded by the same founder, Piefer. He always had a long-term vision to deliver fusion power, but he did it differently than most private fusion companies. Most raise more money every year to develop their technology.
Instead, Piefer saw the need to develop a commercial unit that could deliver, not just a machine. He looked at real markets and real social needs. He found that there were opportunities to add value to produce a product that had a real market need, while practicing and developing your skills as he breached the technological advances to become a long-term fusion energy producer.
SHINE’s four-phase progress towards clean energy generation
- Phase 1: Advanced industrial imaging – Uses neutrons for detailed imaging to improve the quality and safety of products in the aerospace, defense, energy and other industries.
- Phase 2: Medical isotopes (small-scale transmutation) – Uses fusion technology to produce medical isotopes that diagnose and treat heart disease, cancer, and a variety of diseases
- Phase 3: Recycling of nuclear waste (large-scale transmutation) – Expansion of phase 2 processing and fusion technology for the recycling of nuclear waste
- Phase 4: Fusion energy – Establishes nuclear fusion as a technically and economically viable global energy source
The company’s history so far
Phoenix started with Phase 1 – the creation of neutrons by the fusion of deuterium and tritum, which are created by accelerating a beam of deuterium into a tritium gas. The neutrons are used for advanced imaging and are better than neutrons made in nuclear reactor facilities because they give a lower cost per neutron with simpler regulatory burdens and a far more compact form factor.
Medical isotopes were supposed to be made in Phase 2, and Piefer initially expected this phase to begin much later as Phoenix became more established.
But in 2009 the medical isotope supply chain began to fail and Piefer saw an urgent need. Medical isotopes such as molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) are an essential part of medical imaging used to diagnose heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.
There were societal needs and thus a market window, but there were significant uncertainties and risks for the company in pursuing it – unproven regulatory risk, unproven technology, unproven customer acceptance…. Rather than transferring all of the financial risk to Phoenix, SHINE was outsourced while Phoenix continued its Phase 1 work.
Now, after roughly 10 years, SHINE’s medical isotope production funding path is in jeopardy and Piefer believes the time is right to bring the two companies back together to pursue the original vision.
A mature merger industry and ESG investments
But there is another reason for Piefer’s increased openness to the long-term vision of fusion energy. The environment for merger investment has changed over the past decade. Interest in long term investing and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) investing is much greater now. Investors increasingly want business-oriented companies.
One could say that SHINE scores double points in the mission focus. In addition to the huge societal implications of fusion energy, they also offer societal implications for medicine, aerospace, and defense as they develop fusion.
As with other fusion concepts, new technologies are changing the game. One key is the advancement in superconducting magnets made from high temperature superconductor materials (HTS). New HTS magnets are being developed by private merger companies Tokamak Energy and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Tokamak Energy recently licensed their technology to the Paul Scherrer Institute for upgrades to theirs Swiss light source Research Institute. These advanced HTS magnets generate higher magnetic fields than previously possible, making fusion systems smaller and cheaper.
For Piefer, HTS magnets will economically make phase 3 of his plan possible, while this was not the case before.
Phase 3 requires further development of the technology from Phase 2. The radiochemical processing, waste separation and recycling will be similar, but transmutation requires an improvement in expertise.
The efficiency of the gas target source is limited, so they must instead fire the accelerator beam into a plasma (an electrically charged gas). This will be their biggest marketing effort in the coming year. Piefer expects the Phase 3 device to only generate about a tenth of the breakeven energy threshold, but it will do. You will practice on the merger, work on increasing production while creating value and generating income by converting radioactive waste.
When they’re done, SHINE moves on to phase 4 – power generation.
The interesting thing about SHINE / Phoenix is that they plan to achieve their long term vision of fusion energy through profitable short term fusion operations. The four phases are intended to advance the company in the direction of energy. They will explore new markets that will allow them to practice their core competencies but not be distracted by other medical markets outside of physics, nuclear engineering, or radiochemistry. Piefer is building a board of directors of very longtime thinkers such as Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Jean Rogers, founder of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and ESG advisor.
Good for the world and good for business
Another important aspect of the four-phase advancement is that with each step the total addressable market grows and the value of the company grows. As rough numbers for the ballpark, they would go from a total addressable market for Phase 1 on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars today, to billions in the production of medical isotopes in Phase 2, to recycling of waste in Phase 3, which is likely to be hundreds of billions of dollars for energy in phase 4, where the total addressable market is in the trillions.
It is a good justification to think long term.
“My approach to creating value is to keep adding value to the underlying business. And that means that income etc. are reinvested in the next phase and the technology is further developed, ”says Piefer.
It’s good for the world and good for business. SHINE wants to make the world a better place, but also wants to make money. Piefer understands that making money is a means to an end – that we will escape this climate crisis through growth, not restraint.
Piefer talks about cultural change, about building a team that understands this: “That was one of the main reasons to go through the phases – not just the technology, but also building the people so that they understand what needs to happen. Because our goal is to change the world. On the scale of billions of people. I mean, literally: If we can deliver fusion economically, it will be transformative. “