Seattle startup welcomes Fusion Energy Advance

Zap Energy, a fusion energy startup working on a cost-effective way to generate electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken a major step toward testing a system that its researchers believe will eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

This moment is considered an important milestone in solving the world energy problem while abandoning fossil fuels. An growing global industry consists of almost three dozen start-ups and actively funded by the state development projects, implements many concepts. Seattle-based Zap Energy stands out because its approach – if it works – will be simpler and cheaper than what other companies are doing.

Today’s nuclear power plants are based on fission, which captures the energy released when atoms split. In addition to intense heat, the by-products of the process include waste that remains radioactive for centuries. thermonuclear reactionon the other hand, it reproduces the process that takes place inside the Sun, where gravitational forces fuse hydrogen atoms into helium.

For more than half a century, physicists have pursued the idea of ​​commercial power plants based on a controlled fusion reaction, essentially containing the sun’s energy. Such a power plant would produce many times more electricity than it consumes, and without long-lived radioactive by-products. But none of the research projects came close to reaching their goal. However, as fear of climate change grows, interest in this technology is growing.

“We consider it vital that fusion be part of our energy mix,” said Benj Conway, President of Zap Energy.

While many competing designs use powerful magnets or flashes of laser light to compress plasma to initiate a fusion reaction, Zap uses an approach pioneered by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It is based on a formed plasma gas – an excited cloud of particles often referred to as the 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. This technique is known as “shear flow Z-pinch”.

Zap Energy’s “plucked” approach is not new. It could be observed from lightning strikes as early as the 18th century and has been proposed as a route to fusion power since the 1930s. While pinching occurs naturally in lightning strikes and solar flares, the challenge for engineers is to stabilize the electrical and magnetic forces in millionths of a second pulses long enough to produce radiation that heats the surrounding curtain of molten metal.

Brian Nelson, a retired nuclear engineer at the University of Washington and chief technology officer at Zap Energy, said the company has successfully injected plasma into a new and more powerful experimental reactor core. The company is currently finalizing work on a power supply that is designed to provide enough power to allow the company to prove that it is possible to produce more power than it consumes.

If their system proves to work, Zap researchers say, it will be orders of magnitude cheaper than competing systems based on magnetic and laser confinement. It is expected to cost about the same as traditional nuclear power.

Researchers trying to create a Z-pinch found it impossible to stabilize the plasma and abandoned the idea in favor of a magnetic approach known as tokamak reactor.

Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field created by flowing plasma by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to create Zap Energy in 2017. The company has raised over $200 million, including a number of investments from Chevron.

Recent technical advances in fusion fuel and advanced magnets have led to a surge in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies worldwide, and private funding has topped $4 billion, including from high-profile tech investors such as Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates, and Chris Sacca. mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s latest funding round.

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

Last fall, Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, wrote in an American Physical Society newsletter that the United States was in the middle of another round of a “fusion energy fever” that has come and gone every decade since the 1950s. He argued that start-up companies’ claims that they are on track to successfully build systems that produce more energy than they consume have no basis in fact.

“The fact that these claims are widely believed is solely due to the effective propaganda of the promoters and representatives of the laboratory,” he wrote.

Physicists and executives at Zap Energy said in an interview last week that they believe they will prove within a year that their approach is capable of reaching the long-awaited energy break-even point.

If they do, they will succeed where so many research efforts since the middle of the last century have failed.

The Zap Energy physicists said they’ve made the case for “scaling up” their neutron boost approach in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers documenting computer simulations that they will soon begin testing.

The power plant version of the system would cover the reactor core with moving molten metal to trap bursts of neutrons, resulting in intense heat that would be converted to steam, which would in turn generate electricity.

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

According to him, their technical task now is to confirm what they have modeled on the computer. This will include ensuring that the plasma’s Z-pinch fusion section remains stable and that they can develop an electrode that can survive the reactor’s intense fusion environment.

mr. Conway said he hopes Zap can quickly prove its concept, as opposed to the big, expensive developments of the past that were like “prototyping a billion-dollar iPhone every 10 years.”