The Future of Energy
Jefferson City native Dale Prouty, BS, BS EE ’74, has been involved with more than 25 technology businesses during his career, but he believes his current company has the potential to change the world. Prouty is chief executive officer of Tri Alpha Energy (TAE), located in southern California, which is working to develop fusion-based electricity generation. According to the TAE website, “TAE is determined to deliver clean fusion energy technology that can provide sustainable, commercially competitive base load power and help achieve global energy independence. We are now confident we have sufficient science and engineering understanding to accomplish our goal.”
Fusion has long been in the realm of science fiction, featured in movies like Back to the Future II, but Prouty and his colleagues at TAE are convinced fusion will eventually meet the growing global demand for electricity. Prouty recently answered some questions that explore his career in science:
Q: While at Mizzou, you studied physics and electrical engineering. Have you always been attracted to science?
Numbers were my thing when I was a kid. I used to sit down with a spiral notebook and just write numbers from one to a million. I was captivated by numbers and math was pretty easy for me. When I got to high school, I had a physics teacher who made science a real challenge. That's what first got me interested in it. At Mizzou I started in math, but I pretty quickly figured out that it was physics and electrical engineering that really stretched me, so I pursued degrees in both.
Q: After your time at Mizzou, you earned a PhD in applied physics from Caltech. Then when you began your career, you successfully combined your scientific background with the business world. Tell us how you transitioned from a “scientist” to an “investor.” What characteristics of a scientific mind have been particularly valuable in the world of finance/business?
While I was getting my PhD, I worked at Hughes Aircraft in the space and communications systems lab. One exciting project was NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter. There we were, designing a way for the orbiter and the probe to communicate in a harsh electromagnetic environment during the one-hour probe descent into the Jovian atmosphere, after more than a decade in transit.
There were some really interesting people on that team. I got to know a very entrepreneurial guy named Rex Crookshanks—a brilliant man with about a hundred patents to his name. He was the one who got me interested in starting my own business. Certainly things I'd learned from my science background, like critical thinking and clarity of focus, have helped me as an investor and entrepreneur, but it was Rex's passion for building companies that really inspired me to get involved in start-ups.
Q: In your career you’ve served as CEO, investor, board member, or operating director for more than 25 tech businesses. You’ve worked with global companies, government agencies including NASA, and investment firms. With such a diverse professional experience, what first drew you to Tri Alpha Energy and convinced you to become involved?
It was the vision of creating fusion-based power plants with the potential to provide a virtually limitless source of carbon-free, safe, sustainable energy for the world, and helping solve an unsolved problem. It was obviously a very big idea with a monumental impact, more so than almost anything else I could think of. I did my due diligence. Even though the experimental science was very thin at that point, I came to believe in the people involved in the project – Norman Rostoker, Michl Binderbauer, Henk Monkhorst, and others. It tapped my physics background, too, which I hadn't used since Caltech.
I wasn't intimidated by the challenges of an early-stage start-up. I had already had a lot of experience with small companies, so I knew how to do the things that start-ups have to do to get on a solid footing—things like building boards, getting the lawyers and auditors and, of course, raising money. I felt I could add value over a long period of time.
Q: You started at TAE in 1999 as a seed investor and have served as CEO since 2005. Can you explain for our readers the basic process of fusion?
Fusion is the process that powers the sun and the stars. Here on earth it's often called the "holy grail" of energy because of the qualities I mentioned earlier – carbon-free, safe, and sustainable. TAE’s unique approach will provide a virtually unlimited supply of clean, continuous (base load) electricity.
The potential is truly world-changing. This technology will substantially mitigate climate change impacts and cost-effectively address the growing global demand for electricity. It also will contribute to increased global competitiveness and improved national health. It would become one of the world's preeminent energy sources, maybe the primary one.
Q: What does that path to fusion energy look like?
Historically, there have been two challenges to developing fusion-based electricity generation: sustaining fuel particles (plasma) long enough and at temperatures hot enough to validate the path to fusion power. We recently delivered a major science breakthrough that demonstrated our ability to sustain plasma life indefinitely, addressing the "long enough" challenge.
Now, we're building a test machine to show that our approach scales to higher temperatures. We expect to have these "hot enough" results over the next three to four years. We're also starting to work with utility and industrial partners to develop a commercialization plan.
Q: What impact did your time at Mizzou have on your career/life, and what would you tell our current students who have big ideas for making a difference with their lives?
Mizzou provided a great foundation for my education and began preparing me for the real world—I'm sure it is still doing that for students today.
To Mizzou students today: Focus on the biggest challenge you can find, and go after it. You will find like-minded friends. Maybe it's building new astronomical systems to study exo-planets, or disease-curing drugs, or composing a new symphony to rival the masters, or cheaper/faster infrastructure for developing countries…whatever it is, grab on to it and find a way to contribute while you're young, when you can more afford to take risk. It gets harder when you're older—with more responsibilities. I encourage you to find the excitement in your life that will sustain you every day. Life flies by; it is only later that you look back. Take a chance.