Fusion Energy Advancement Is Hailed By A Seattle Start-Up

Zap Energy, a fusion energy start-up working on a low-cost path to produce electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system its researchers believe would eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

That point is seen as a milestone in solving the global energy challenge while it moves away from fossil fuels. An emerging global industry composed of about three dozen start-ups and heavily funded government development projects is pursuing a variety of concepts. Zap Energy, based in Seattle, stands out because its approach – if it works – would be simpler and cheaper than what other companies are doing.

Today’s nuclear power plants are based on fission, which captures the energy released by splitting atoms. In addition to intense heat, byproducts of the process include waste that is currently radioactive for hundreds. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, replicates the process that takes place inside the sun, where gravitational forces fuse hydrogen atoms into the helium.

For more than half a century physicists have pursued the vision of commercial power plants based on a controlled fusion reaction, essentially bottling the power of the sun. Such a power plant would produce many times more electricity than it consumed and without the radioactive byproducts. But none of the research projects have come anywhere close to the goal. Still, as fear of climate change mounts, there is growing interest in the technology.

“We think it’s important that fusion become part of our energy mix,” said Benj Conway, president of Zap Energy.

While many competing efforts use powerful magnets or bursts of laser light to compress a plasma in order to initiate a fusion reaction, Zap is pursuing an approach by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It relies on a shaped plasma gas – an energized cloud of particles that is often described as a fourth state of matter – that is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electric current as it flows through a two-meter vacuum tube. The technique is known as “sheared flow Z-pinch.”

Zap Energy’s “pinch” approach is not new. It may have been observed that the effects of lightening strikes as early as the 18th century and have been offered a path to fusion energy since the 1930s. While pinches occur naturally in lightening strikes and solar flares, the challenge for engineers is to stabilize the electrical and magnetic forces long enough in pulses – measured in a millionth of a second – to produce radiation to heat a curtain of molten metal.

Brian Nelson, a retired University of Washington nuclear engineer and chief technology officer at Zap Energy, said the company had successfully injected plasma into a new and more powerful experimental reactor core. It is now completing a power supply that is designed to provide enough energy to prove to the company that it is producing more energy than it consumes.

If their system proves workable, the Zap researchers say, it will be orders of magnitude less expensive than competing systems based on magnet and laser confinement. It is expected to cost roughly the same as conventional nuclear power.

Researchers are attempting the Z-pinch design to make it impossible to stabilize the plasma and abandon the idea of ​​favoring the magnet approach, known as a Tokamak reactor.

Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field that is generated by the flowing plasma made by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017. The company has raised more than $ 160 million, including a series of investments from Chevron.

Recent technological advances in fusion fuels and advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies globally, and private funding has risen above $ 4 billion, including from well-known technology investors like Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates and Chris Sacca. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s most recent funding round.

But there are still vocal skeptics who argue that progress in fusion energy research is largely a mirage and that recent investments are unlikely to translate into commercial fusion systems anytime soon.

Last fall, Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, posted in the American Physical Society newsletter that the United States was in the middle of another round of “fusion energy fever,” which has come and gone every decade since the 1950s. He argued that claims were made by start-up companies that they were on a path to successfully building systems that produced more energy than they had consumed on a basis in reality.

“That these claims are widely believed to be solely due to the effective propaganda of promoters and laboratory spokespersons,” he wrote.

The Zap Energy physicists and executives said in interviews last week that they believed they were within a year of proving that their approach was capable of reaching the long-sought-after energy break-even point.

If they do, they will succeed where an array of research efforts – going back to the middle of the last century – have failed.

The Zap Energy physicists said they had made a case for their “scaling” power to produce a steep increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers that documented computer-generated simulations they would soon begin to test.

A power plant version of the system would shroud the reactor core in moving molten metal to capture bursts of neutrons resulting in intense heat, which would convert to steam that would turn into electricity.

Each reactor core will produce about 50 megawatts of electricity, roughly enough to power at least 8,000 homes, said Uri Shumlak, a physicist and University of Washington professor who is a co-founder of Zap Energy.

Their technical challenge now is to make sure they are simulated by a computer, he said. That will include the Z-pinch fusion section of the plasma that is stable and that they are able to design an electrode that can survive in the intense fusion environment of the reactor.

Mr. Conway said he hoped Zap would be able to prove their concept quickly, unlike the big, high-cost development efforts of the past, which have been like “building a billion-dollar iPhone prototype every 10 years.”

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