Cressida Bonas with her cousin Richard Dinan
There are myriad reasons why 32-year-old Richard Dinan has struggled to be taken seriously in the stuffy, insular, academic world of nuclear fusion.
For starters, most know him as the much lusted-after veteran of Channel 4’s reality show Made In Chelsea, rather than as a big-brained physics boffin. (He was the flash, entrepreneurial, party-promoting posh boy prone to grand gestures — he wooed one co-star with his helicopter, for goodness’ sake.)
Second, he wasn’t remotely academic at school (£12,615-per-term St Edward’s in Oxford), where he had no interest in science whatsoever, and got only a scraping of GCSEs. ‘I got an occasional C, mainly Ds,’ he says.
So it seemed rather a leap when, in 2013, he founded Applied Fusion Systems, to create his own prototype nuclear fusion reactor. He said he was going to raise £200 million to fund it, with the aim of one day becoming the leading private manufacturer of such reactors.
He’s also written a book on the subject, and been a guest lecturer for Imperial College London’s Master of Science students and the Oxford University Scientific Society.
For those not in the know, nuclear fusion — not to be confused with ‘fission’, which involves splitting atoms to produce energy in the form of heat — is what powers every star in our galaxy, including the sun. It involves fusing two or more small, lighter atoms together to produce another heavier atom.
Like fission, it generates heat energy but at far higher temperatures — up to 300 million degrees Celsius. As in conventional fission-driven nuclear reactors, the heat would be used to produce steam to drive turbines and generate electricity — just much more of it.
Richard is pictured at his HQ in Bletchley, with his soon to be built nuclear fusion machine
Scientists have, for decades, been trying their utmost to recreate nuclear fusion. Indeed, it’s the Holy Grail for physicists, as it has the potential to be a zero-carbon, combustion-free, limitless source of cheap energy that will end our dependence on oil and coal. It is also not as costly or high-maintenance as alternatives such as wind and solar power.
The raw ingredients are deuterium (also known as heavy hydrogen), found in sea water, and tritium (super-heavy hydrogen), which occurs naturally in the atmosphere. These fuse to produce helium, a stable and clean gas. Unlike fission, there is no dangerous radioactive waste to deal with.
But endless failures to achieve full fusion in labs have led to the joke that ‘fusion is the energy source of the future — and always will be’.
So one can only imagine the shock — and shrieks of laughter — that recently rippled through the scientific community when Richard announced that the technology for nuclear fusion would soon be available in his rented warehouse on a business park on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.
Which is where we are today.
And where Richard — very pale, very blond and impossibly handsome with his square jaw, light-blue eyes and immaculate bob — has a lot to say about his new calling.
‘I dream about nuclear fusion. I’m obsessed with the technology. Nuclear fusion is how the stars are shining. This is how the universe makes energy. It’s free, it’s abundant. It’s not setting fire to anything. So we are building a little star. On Earth,’ he says, throwing his surprisingly thin arms wide open. ‘Right here!’
As he talks, and talks — about thrusters, conductors, vacuum chambers, and how last year he built his very own ‘plasma space thrust’ (often used in spacecraft engines), whipping out his monogrammed phone to show me photos of his plans — I take a good look around.
To be honest, this 10,000 sq ft facility does not feel like the epicentre of the global exploration into nuclear fusion. There isn’t a white coat in sight. Just a girl with very dark brows and hair extensions fiddling about on her smartphone.
In fact, there’s almost nothing really here at all, other than a table, a few screens and a collection of vast metal cogs on the floor. Oh, and what looks like a huge metal barrel with a few holes in it — this is the vacuum chamber where fusion would take place, apparently.
It is also freezing cold in here, and the loos are a disgrace.
But Richard can see beyond all this, to three months hence when, he insists, he’ll switch on his prototype and generate a temperature of around 100 million degrees Celsius (hotter that the surface of the sun).
What’s more, this could be eight years ahead of the $21 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France — a collaboration by 35 nations to carry out the world’s largest fusion experiment. It aims to prove that fusion can power the planet in a safe and environmentally friendly way.
There is also competition from Tokamak Energy in nearby Oxfordshire, which created Britain’s first private fusion reactor. Last year it hit 15 million degrees Celsius and it is going for 100 million by 2020.
So what is going on? Is Richard misguided, delusional or just plain crazy? Or is it all a scam?
It all started six years ago when he was on holiday in Namibia, which is well-known for meteorite activity. He bought a huge piece of the space debris. ‘It blew my mind. It changed everything,’ he says. ‘Because when you look at a [bit of] meteorite it looks like a piece of iron.
‘I wanted to know, ‘Why is there iron in space?’. I wanted to know, ‘How was it cooked? Where did the heat come from?’ he says. If some people were initially sceptical of his new passion — ‘They thought that I had lost my chickens!’ — he didn’t blame them.
There have, after all, been quite a few incarnations of Richard Dinan.
The only child of Lady Charlotte Curzon and Barry Dinan, a former Captain in the Irish Guards, he’s a cousin of Prince Harry’s ex, Cressida Bonas. He’s also a descendant of the 1st Earl Howe, who was Admiral of the British fleet on the Glorious First of June in 1794, in the first naval action against the French during the revolutionary wars.
Richard speaks to JANE FRYER as he sets up Britain’s biggest privately owned nuclear fusion machine
He grew up in a ‘very sweet cottage in the middle of the countryside’ near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, with lots of Bernese mountain dogs.
He says he was shy, introverted and adored spending time with his mother, but was always driven to make money.
‘We weren’t poor, but I realised that, while my parents would buy me a TV or a basic car, if I wanted an expensive watch or a Ferrari I would have to go and ask the world,’ he adds.
And so, inspired by his unlikely business hero, the late poet and publisher Felix Dennis (‘such a rogue!’), and helped by the many doors opened by Cressida’s half-brother, Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, he spent his teens promoting posh parties.
Then, knowing nothing about publishing, he set up his own student magazine, Ammunition (‘A catastrophic failure, really — what was I thinking?’).
When he was 22 he made £125,000 playing the stock market, and then promptly lost the lot when he branched into spread betting.
‘I thought I was so clever, some brilliant trader, but I was an idiot. But what a great lesson. And it doesn’t hurt any more because I made it back.’
Next, he set up a discount restaurant card scheme called the Phantom Card with his old pal, Alexander Nall-Cain, son of disgraced peer Lord Brocket. ‘We raised a million in a year,’ he says.
He later sold most of his shares and moved into the tech industry. ‘I started a 3D printing company. It didn’t go well. I got pretty hammered there, too.’
But he persevered in tech, investing in companies that have built prototyping facilities for Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover and the Dubai space agency.
He made a lot of money and bought himself a fleet of fancy cars, including his beloved black Ferrari with a personalised number plate.
‘It’s not for showing off — otherwise I’d have got a red one,’ he insists. ‘I just love the machines, I love playing with it, I love the sound.’
Richard announced that the technology for nuclear fusion would soon be available in his rented warehouse on a business park on the outskirts of Milton Keynes
And then, in 2013, he bought that bit of meteorite and that was that. ‘I realised I’d fallen in love with fusion,’ he says. ‘I wanted to know everything about it.’
But not, let’s be clear, by heading to the library, or enrolling in an evening class in A-level physics. Instead, he hired private physics tutors and flew around the world talking to experts.
Soon he was obsessed. Particularly so when he discovered the science behind nuclear fusion had been cracked back in 1997, but that follow-through had been frustratingly slow.
‘I decided to build my own [fusion reactor] as building things quickly is my strength. I’m not a professional physicist or anything, but I knew I could do this smaller, quicker and more efficiently, and I just really, really love physics,’ he says.
And all of this while still appearing on Made In Chelsea.
‘They were a bit bemused,’ he agrees. ‘Particularly as I got more and more into science.’
He did start to change, however.
He took co-star and I’m A Celebrity winner Georgia ‘Toff’ Toffolo on a date to a scientific theatre to watch molecules collide, and tried to woo another beauty with a robot holding a flower.
But it was when he wrote a 90-page book on nuclear fusion that producers realised he was moving in a different direction to the show, and in 2014, he left.
‘I loved it, loved it, loved it. It was such fun. It took me out of my comfort zone. I’m an only child and very introverted, so to go in front of the camera and try to kiss someone, it’s good for you!,’ he says.
But there are downsides to being a handsome reality star. ‘It’s harder to be taken seriously. I can’t stand up and say the wrong thing — there are so many people who would love to call me out on it.’
So he worked harder, reading, studying, devouring physics. Until two years ago, he says, he was in too deep. ‘I couldn’t think about anything else. It consumed my life. I became so obsessed with the science that I was losing the ability to talk about it. I’m the fundraiser, not the scientist. I had to take a step back.’
Lately, he has ventured into guest lecturing. A recent talk at girls’ boarding school St Mary’s Ascot went down a storm. ‘At the end, 16-year-old girls were asking about plasma physics and semi conductors. They loved it.’
No surprise there. He’s a total stud, famous (to teen girls), utterly charming and endearingly nerdy. Even if he does like listening to The Phantom Of The Opera’s soundtrack on a loop and bang on a bit too much about physics.
(‘Just imagine,’ he says, ‘the same power that gave humanity the ability to do the worst thing we’ve ever done [create nuclear weapons] can also give us the ability to do the best thing we ever do. This is my life.’)
Lord knows how his long-term girlfriend — a sweet interior designer who, he says, can’t bear the celebrity rubbish of Made In Chelsea — puts up with it over dinner. He assures me she’s patient and never rolls her eyes.
But back to the science. Because today, despite the alarmingly empty warehouse, Richard insists he’s on track. Last month he turned down an offer of £30 million as ‘the company didn’t need it’.
Who knows, he might just be onto something big. Something massive. Something that will make him the ‘mountain of money’ he has always dreamt of.
And perhaps, more importantly, something that will make people take him seriously. Let’s hope so, because Richard Dinan is an unexpected delight.
Right at the end, I ask the girl with the eyebrows and hair extensions what her connection to the business of nuclear fusion is.
‘Oh, I’m Chloe,’ she says. ‘I’m taking photos for Richard’s Instagram. I handle his social media.’
Of course she is! You can take the boy out of Made In Chelsea . . .