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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Michl Binderbauer: Energy Exec Goes to Washington

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Michl Binderbauer, an Orange County scientist in the race to harness virtually limitless supplies of fusion energy, took his ideas to the White House last month as part of an energy summit.

The timing of the event, planned months in advance, ended up being crucial—it occurred on March 17, less than a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent world leaders scrambling for energy solutions.

Binderbauer, the chief executive of $5 billion-valued TAE Technologies Inc. in Foothill Ranch, is one of dozens of scientists across the world working on nuclear fusion. The idea isn’t new—scientists for decades have explored how to practically and economically produce energy from the same process that powers the stars—but it has certainly gained traction in recent years.

Binderbauer was one of the five winners at the Business Journal’s Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards last May, and has been pushed farther in the spotlight of elite physicists in the months since.

Binderbauer discussed the long and difficult road to fusion energy during a panel at the White House summit, hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy.

“I liken this to climbing a mountain,” he said during the panel. “When you get out of the fog of the inversion layer and suddenly you see the summit, it’s way up there.”

Holy Grail 

In simplest terms, fusion involves the use of the same energy process that powers the sun and the stars, a daunting achievement many have called the “Holy Grail” of energy research.

Binderbauer’s TAE expects early commercialization of fusion energy to begin in the 2030s, with a gradual and then increasing penetration into commercial markets that will go through mid-century.

During the Fusion Industry Vision panel, Binderbauer noted the “20 years of just a bear of making technological components work.”

“We’re talking about building not science projects, but actually delivering energy,” Binderbauer said.

Other speakers at the event included U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Rep. Donald Beyer, the chairman of the Bipartisan House Fusion Caucus.

“Considerable progress toward achieving commercial fusion, significant science and technology challenges remain,” the White House said in a summary following the event.

Of the 30 fusion companies in the world, about 20 are based in the U.S., according to the White House, which emphasized the “opportunity to keep these companies growing within our borders and cement U.S. technological leadership on fusion.”

Still, many scientists and experts caution that commercialized fusion energy may still be a long way off.

$900M

TAE has received nearly $900 million in funding to date, with support from companies including Google, Kuwait Investment Fund, Goldman Sachs and one of the world’s largest venture capital firms, NEA of suburban Washington.

With one of the company’s power plants, Binderbauer has said, “you could make copious amounts of power at economic rates with no detriment to the environment. That is, in a nutshell, why it’s so important and why people are willing to invest gobs of money. It’s the Holy Grail of energy.”

Binderbauer has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Irvine. His firm counts about 250 employees in Orange County with more to be hired this year, and about 100 employees overseas.

The company uses a machine, dubbed Norman, which is about the size of two double-decker buses and operates at approximately 70 million degrees. The work is still in the experimental stage.

TAE Technologies has been scouting for a site in the Irvine area to accommodate growth, specifically a new machine called Copernicus, which is expected to be ready within a few years, Binderbauer told the Business Journal in a Feb. 25 profile.

The company would ideally like 175,000 square feet of space for its “next-generation reactor” as well as lab, office and warehouse space.

TAE currently leases about 140,000 square feet across three buildings in its hometown.

“We’re at an incredible point where the science and the technology is starting to meet up with the challenge,” Binderbauer told the White House panel. “The journey is enormous.” 

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Kevin Costelloe
Kevin Costelloe
Tech reporter at Orange County Business Journal

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