• Amazon overturned a Pentagon decision?
  • The perfect gift for a hypochondriac…
  • Self-driving cargo “pods” are coming to Germany and the U.S.…

Dear Reader,

Turn up the power.

That’s exactly what the team did at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in order to achieve fusion ignition and a net-energy production fusion reaction.

This morning was a big day in the world of nuclear fusion, as the formal announcement was made by the team at LLNL that they had achieved this multi-decade goal.

I remember writing about a prior experiment back in August in The Bleeding Edge.

It was a big deal in that the experiment produced 1.3 megajoules of energy, putting it right on the cusp of fusion ignition – the point at which a fusion reaction is self-sustaining because net energy is produced from the fusion reaction.

What struck me at the time wasn’t the energy output of the experiment. It was the fact that the experiment produced an eight times improvement over a prior experiment that Spring, and a 25 times improvement over a prior record in 2018.

It’s the pace of technological advancement that’s more critical in understanding how quickly breakthroughs will happen. They don’t happen in a linear fashion. Advancements speed up and improve exponentially – and that’s exactly what we’ve just seen with this latest experiment.

The Target Chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility

Source: LLNL

On December 5, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) achieved fusion ignition by producing 3.15 megajoules of output from just 2.05 megajoules of energy required to achieve fusion ignition. Remarkable. 

That’s more energy out than what was required as an input. At the highest level, this is the future of 100% clean, limitless energy – and, ultimately, the end of the use of fossil fuels.

But as exciting as this announcement is, there’s some important context.

The NIF is designed to employ an approach to nuclear fusion known as inertial fusion energy. It uses 192 individual lasers focused on a target capsule the size of a pea, which contains the “fuel” – hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The whole facility takes up an area about the size of three football fields.

The plasma that the experiment created was only a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. It was about 10 times hotter than the sun and only lasted for a few billionths of a second.

In order to achieve that, it required an extraordinary level of precision engineering. The lasers were configured to specifications down to five-trillionths of a meter, the timing of the lasers was measured in the billionths of a second, and the fuel capsule had to be a near-perfect circle that was a hundred times smoother than a mirror.

There was no one thing that made this experiment a success. It was the fine-tuning of parameters and equipment to levels of precision that are difficult to comprehend. Without doing so, the reaction would have never been possible.

And then there was the power. 

Previous experiments were well below the 2 megajoule level, and the team had been systematically “turning up the dial” on the experiments.

After all, recreating the conditions similar to our Sun here on Earth – no matter how tiny – takes an immense amount of initial power to get the fusion reaction started.

It’s a remarkable achievement, but not one that’s practical for commercial nuclear fusion. Inertial confinement technology was natural for the LLNL to use, as it’s a key facility for the research and development of nuclear weapons.

Far more interesting to me are the advancements that are taking place in the private industry that largely focus on the magnetic confinement approach to nuclear fusion.

I see this as a far more practical approach to commercialization – and one that will lead to compact nuclear fusion reactors capable of powering our power grids will limitless clean energy.

While the engineering is real, and the accomplishment is awesome, there’s a much bigger game at play behind the announcement – money. 

With hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown around to the electric vehicle (EV) industry, LLNL wants some – and the team made it very clear in its release:

Congress and the Administration need to fully fund and properly implement the fusion research provisions in the recent CHIPS and Science Act, and likely more. During World War II, we crafted the Manhattan Project for a timely result.

The challenges facing the world today are even greater than at that time. We must double down and accelerate the research to explore new pathways for the clean, limitless energy that fusion promises.

I completely agree. The government has been throwing away money on “clean energy” projects that don’t address how our electricity is produced. 

Solar and wind will not be able to power the world’s baseload power requirements 24/7/365. Nuclear fusion will. The world should be “all in” on advancing nuclear fusion, specifically the kind that has a path toward commercialization through compact fusion reactors.

There’s no need to be distracted by anything else. If anything, I hope today’s announcement will ignite the industry to a series of breakthroughs next year. 

But one thing is certain: We can expect record levels of private investments into nuclear fusion companies next year on the back of this news.

With an announcement like this, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we’re right on the cusp of solving the grand challenge of clean, limitless, and almost free energy.

The disconcerting connection between Big Tech and big government…

The U.S. Pentagon is making some odd moves.

Back in 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded a $10 billion contract to Microsoft. It was one of the largest contracts ever for cloud services.

But then Amazon cried “foul play” and sued the DoD. Amazon had bid on the same contract and lost. Jeff Bezos was highly critical and insisted it was an unfair process.

Well, it turns out Amazon has some incredible political pull.

A year later, the Pentagon voided Microsoft’s $10 billion contract entirely. We don’t see that very often.

Then the Pentagon issued a brand-new contract for the same cloud services and opened it up for bidding. This new contract totaled $9 billion.

And in an odd twist, the Pentagon guaranteed four companies a piece of the action. It told Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Oracle that they would each get at least $100,000 worth of business (clearly, the amount is purely symbolic). Then they would have to bid individually for pieces of the total contract.

The DoD trumpeted this move as a “multi-cloud strategy.” But really, the Pentagon is just appeasing each of the four major players in cloud computing.

And here’s where the story gets even stranger…

The DoD will host files with three different access levels as part of this contract. The access levels are unclassified, secret, and top secret.

We can understand the DoD hosting unclassified files in the cloud. But I have to question the motives behind hosting secret and top secret files in this manner. Keep in mind the entities hosting these files have access to them too.

The Pentagon and the DoD are roping these major tech players in by funneling billions of dollars in contracts to their cloud businesses.

Given what we now know about the level of collusion and control between the U.S. government and Twitter – as well as Facebook and Google (also YouTube) – this is definitely a concern.

Perhaps such a statement would be considered conspiracy theory a few years ago. But with Elon Musk releasing the “Twitter Files,” we now know that government agencies were explicitly colluding and essentially controlling information on Twitter for years.

I’d feel far more comfortable if the Pentagon simply built and managed its own secret and top-secret data centers.

But with multibillion-dollar contracts being handed out to companies that serve consumers and collect their data – like Amazon, Google, and Facebook – this isn’t the kind of relationship to naively think won’t impact government influence over their consumer-facing businesses.

The connection between government and private technology corporations appears to be increasing. We’re at a point now where this link is so tight that it factors into these corporations’ business strategies. That impacts the way we analyze certain companies from an investment perspective as well.

My hope is that the trend reverses, but I don’t think it will.

Government largess, deficit spending, and outsized influence on the economy is sadly on the rise. Looking ahead toward the next couple of years, I fully expect this will become a more common thread in our analysis.

A product born from paranoia…

We had a look back in April at Dyson’s prototype for air-purifying, noise-cancelling headphones.

Regular readers may recall that this is the one consumer product I hoped to see fail. It was such a ridiculous combination of two unrelated technologies that would only fuel the newfound paranoia caused by failed pandemic policies.

For the sake of newer readers, Dyson is famed for its fantastic vacuums and air purifiers. I suspect many of us have a Dyson vacuum in our house.

Now, Dyson is using that same technology in this new product. But to me, it was an overt play on the fear and mass hysteria surrounding COVID-19. Here it is:

Dyson’s Air-Purifying Headphones

Source: Dyson

What we’re looking at here is a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that double as an air filter.

Notice how big the earpieces are? That space houses fans that run at 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM).

These fans take in the air and push it through filters. That purified air is then fed to the nose and the mouth through the strange face shield contraption.

Dyson reports that this process can clean out 99% of particle pollution up to 0.1 microns. Sounds good, right? But there’s an important nuance here.

There’s no doubt this product was inspired by COVID-19. With all the fear surrounding mask-wearing, Dyson came out with the perfect product to play into that mindset.

But here’s the thing: Aerosolized viruses are smaller than 0.1 microns. COVID-19 ranges from 0.07 to 0.09 microns. That means this device provides absolutely no protection against COVID-19, influenza, or any other airborne virus.

To be fair, Dyson states this explicitly. The firm acknowledges that this product cannot protect wearers from viruses. But how many consumers will actually read that in the fine print?

Interestingly, Dyson plans to launch this product in mainland China first. The launch is slated for next month. Each pair of headphones will cost just under $1,000.

This actually makes sense.

Beijing and Shanghai are two of the most polluted cities in the world. I’ve experienced just how bad the air quality is firsthand more times than I can remember. The same is true in Hong Kong.

And at certain times of the year in Beijing, the city is blanketed with a yellow dust that comes from deforested areas north of the city. It turns the sky a hazy yellowish color… and you can actually taste the dust in your mouth when you breathe. It’s terrible.

So, Dyson’s new product makes perfect sense for people living in China’s major cities. But for those of us here in the U.S.? There’s simply no need.

And these things are heavy. The headphones weigh more than twice as much as normal headsets. They have to be somewhat uncomfortable to wear. So why bother? 

Plus, when using the air filtration on a high setting, the batteries will only last about 90 minutes. It’s enough for a commute, but certainly not enough to get through a day on a single charge.

That said, I’m going to take a trip into New York City after Dyson’s U.S. launch takes place next March. And I guarantee I’ll see at least a few people wearing these things around thinking that the headphones will “keep them safe.”

I guess there’s an upside here, though. These air-purifying headphones would make the perfect gift for your favorite hypochondriac.

Autonomous pods…

Autonomous trucking company Einride just made two big announcements.

First, the company just closed on a $500 million funding round. Second, Einride will use this capital to expand into the German market. This is exciting news.

We profiled Einride way back in February. The company is designing self-driving pods completely optimized for cargo space. Here’s a look:

An Einride Autonomous Truck

Source: Einride

I think of it like a pod because there’s no cap at the front of the vehicle. There’s no place for a driver to take control or even sit in the vehicle, for that matter. These are purpose-built, and just for cargo transport.

Einride’s trucks are designed to be fully autonomous from day one. There will never be a safety driver… because there’s no room for one.

I love this approach.

As we’ve discussed before, other autonomous trucking companies are focused on retro-fitting semitrailers with self-driving technology.

There’s a place for this too, of course. It’s a way to naturally step into autonomy and get comfortable before going “all in.” Einride, however, is going fully autonomous right from the start.

The company plans to start road testing in Germany in the third quarter of next year. I’ll certainly be tracking that closely.

And the move into Germany makes perfect sense.

For starters, it has the largest transportation market in Europe. Plus, environmental policies have had an outsized impact in Germany.

The country has been pushing hard toward electrification of all transportation. This is considered “green,” although that’s a mischaracterization.

Germany is now burning a lot of coal for its baseload energy production… which is where the electricity needed to charge EVs comes from. Obviously, there’s nothing clean about charging EVs by burning coal.

Still, Germany continues to march hard toward electrification. That makes it a fantastic opportunity for Einride, and hopefully Germany will figure out its energy production in a way that’s far cleaner than what it’s pursuing today.

And of course, Einride’s pilot programs in the U.S. continue at a fast pace as well. If anyone has seen one of these trucks on the road, I’d love to hear about it. Please write to me right here.

Either way, this is absolutely a company to watch in 2023. Autonomous trucking is taking off right now… and Einride is well-positioned to be one of the leaders.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge