“We need to build our own star,” says Richard Dinan.
The blond dynamo makes this startling announcement to an audience of professionals at the 2019 Business Show at ExCeL.
Perhaps it is not so surprising; the 32 year old entrepreneur is the founder of Applied Fusion Systems, a private manufacturer of nuclear fusion reactors in the UK.
He is also a former cast member of Made in Chelsea…
Even with his solemn demeanour and his dressed down outfit of a jumper and jeans, Richard is an arresting sight – you could hang a rail of clothes from those enviable, Bowie-esque cheekbones.
But it wasn’t just Richard’s striking looks that raised eyebrows during his periodic stints on the E4 reality show which he starred in from 2012 until 2015.
No, it was those ingenious inventions of his which saw Richard wielding a robotic arm or launching a bracelet that functioned like a set of keys. He was so different; we were hooked.
Dinan always had the air of a quirky scientist who has somehow stumbled through the looking glass and into Wonderland and is amused and bemused by the absurd specimens haring around him.
In 2012 he fell for fellow blonde and cast member, Kimberley Garner, dropping down a rabbit hole that would see him bear witness to one of the more dramatic Made in Chelsea showdowns, thanks to her disgruntled ex-boyfriend.
Despite this drama, Richard remained the crisp, calm voice of reason throughout his time on the show. He was the sort of person who could “level you with (his) eyes,” to quote Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. He felt like the grown up in the room.
However, his Made in Chelsea days lie far behind him now; it is not reality stars that surround Richard today – it is attentive business men and women. And Richard is here to talk to them about a topic few of us know much about: fusion energy.
So what is fusion?
“Most of the general public don’t know the difference between fission and fusion,” says Richard, keen to make the distinction:
Fission is what we have now as a nuclear power source. It’s taking very heavy materials – very heavy isotopes – and as they decay we take the energy from them in the form of heat.
This is “the same kind of technology we utilise for nuclear weapons” with all its negative associations, such as radioactive waste.
Fusion is different. It is a clean energy source; it won’t contribute to global warming because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
How does it work? Well, when the sun and other stars transmute matter, transforming hydrogen into helium through a process of fusion, they release enormous amounts of energy.
The aim is to imitate nature by harnessing the power of fusion to provide us with a new source of energy.
“It’s not just a technology I am talking about – it is the technology.” emphasises Richard.
Everything that you are is a result of fusion.
He continues: “About four hundred million years after the Big Bang the first stars were formed and started doing what stars do, which is cooking elements. So, everything that you are – carbon, oxygen, iron… is effectively the product of something that was cooked in a star by fusion. It’s nature’s energy source. And rather than try and harness it with solar powers it’s becoming pretty clear, as our population needs more and more power, that we need our own star.”
Our own star on earth…
It sounds like a fantasy but, if achieved, fusion represents a safe and almost unlimited source of energy.
So, how do we achieve it? OK, here’s the science part…
“Effectively, the way we can build a star on earth is to take a high vacuum vessel and we use a very strong electro-magnetic field to confine a hot plasma,” says Richard.
“Plasma is the fourth state of matter. You’ve got solid, liquid, gas – and plasma. It’s a very, very excited gas that behaves a bit like a liquid. We can get temperatures up to about 100 million degrees plus which is like a star but you can’t hold that in a device because it will melt it,” he explains. “So, the only way you can hold it is in an electro-magnetic field.”
This is precisely what the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), was set up to achieve. The European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States have come together to build the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor project.
Everybody can agree that if we have fusion energy humanity has literally got a get out of jail free card for energy…it will be the best thing we ever do.
Yes, but there still remains that uncomfortable word, if.
In fact, an old industry joke is that fusion energy is always “thirty years away.” After all, physicists have been working on turning nuclear fusion into a viable power source since the 1950s.
Almost seventy years later and we still we don’t have a fusion reactor that works…
However, Richard is confident that the technology is there and that we have cracked fusion, despite the lack of fanfare in the media:
Fusion was cracked in 1997 at JET (the Joint European Torus reactor)…when scientists extracted 17 megawatts of energy from a fusion reactor. This is a massive, massive achievement.
Yet, JET did not achieve the sought after “break-even point” where a device releases as much energy as is required to produce fusion. ITER’s objective is to go much further and to produce 10 times as much energy as it takes to produce fusion.
It’s a daunting remit, however Richard makes a keen observation:
“If you look at ITER now, there’s no scientists at work – it’s cement mixers, it’s cranes, it’s bulldozers,” he points out. “They know what they’re building and they know how to make it work. The science is there, it’s just in the hands of very, very large multi-government corporations…”
Here, you sense his own frustration at the slowness with which multi-government organisations must move.
“If you leave it to the government and we do absolutely nothing, in 2025 the world will be fusion powered. By 2100, governments expect the dominant power source of the world to be fusion energy. That’s if you leave it to the governments. That’s a very long time to wait but that’s where they are,” he observes.
As the founder of Applied Fusion Systems, a private manufacturer of nuclear fusion reactors, Richard is being proactive, however he is frank about the work that lies ahead:
“Humans don’t make perfect things. They build something to the point where it’s good enough and then they develop it,” he explains.
“Right now, the sector is just crying out for people to start prototyping the technology and not aiming for a perfect device. We just need to start building, testing, binning, building another one – and that’s how we build everything.”
He acknowledges that companies like his are something of a rarity:
“There really aren’t many fusion companies in the world,” he admits, “and that’s because people see this trend of not seeing anything happen…and if they see the trend for too long they think it’s just going to repeat itself and they aren’t ready for the trend to buck.”
But past behaviour is often the best predictor of future behaviour, so what’s powering Richard’s confidence in fusion?
Well, for the first time, “we actually have a set date of 2025 of when we see First Plasma ITER,” he explains. (This is when the first “small star” will be created by ITER.)
“We know it won’t keep going on the way it has done because if you are inclined to go to the ITER website you will see every world class physicist has signed up to the fact that ITER is going to produce the fusion burn and it is going to work,” Richard points out.
“We can now use that date as a milestone which we have to prepare for and as someone who is an investor in energy and in technology and understands prototyping I’ve put all my resource behind this,” continues Richard.
It is a massive star that we’re building on earth that most people don’t know about. It is probably the most exciting thing humans are doing at the moment.
And you can feel the strength of Richard’s unwavering conviction.
Certainly, fusion energy has proven to have sufficient power to light up at least one starman on earth…