Google and Chevron invest in fusion startup TAE Technologies

Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE Technologies

Photo courtesy of TAE Technologies

Google as well as Chevron are part of a $250 million fundraiser announced Tuesday for TAE Technologiesa nuclear fusion startup with an unconventional strategy.

Nuclear fusion is often referred to as the “Holy Grail” of clean energy because it would be a way to generate nearly unlimited energy without emissions, without generating the same long-lived radioactive waste that is produced by nuclear fission.

Nuclear fission this is the way conventional nuclear power plants generate energy, and involves splitting a larger atom into two smaller atoms, thereby releasing energy. Nuclear fusion is the reverse process, where two larger atoms collide with each other to form one larger atom, releasing energy in the process. Fusion is the rudimentary process that powers the stars and the sun, but it has proven to be damn difficult to keep it in a controlled reaction on Earth, despite decades of effort.

“TAE – and fusion technology in general – has the potential to be a scalable source of carbon-free energy generation and a key driver of grid stability as renewables become a larger part of the energy mix,” said Jim Gable, President Chevron Technology Venturesa corporate venture capital division of an energy company, in statement announcing Tuesday’s funding round.

Google, the search giant owned by parent company Alphabet, cooperates with TAE since 2014, providing the launch of thermonuclear fusion with artificial intelligence and computing power. But Tuesday marks Google’s first cash investment in TAE.

Roadmap for TAE thermonuclear machines.

Courtesy of TAE Fusion

Japanese investment company, Sumitomo Corporation of Americaalso participated in the round and will help TAE introduce its fusion technologies to the Asia-Pacific region.

The investment follows the announcement in October that TAE became a partner Japan National Institute of Fusion Science. Japan currently gets most of its energy from coal, oil and natural gas. International Energy Association. Its geography makes its clean energy goals particularly challenging.

“Unlike many other countries, Japan does not have an abundance of renewable energy sources, and its high population density, mountainous terrain and steep coastlines present major barriers to expanding what resources it has, especially because many of its few the plains are already heavily depleted. covered with solar panels, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the international industry organization of the International Energy Agencywrote about country’s energy landscape in 2021. This means that Japan should focus on energy efficiency and nuclear power, among other sources, Birol said.

Milestone reached, challenges remain

Also on Tuesday, TAE announced a technical milestone: it has reached temperatures of over 75 million degrees Celsius at its current fusion reactor, nicknamed Norman. (A photo essay on how Norman works can be found here.)

The money, announced by TAE on Tuesday, will go towards building a next-generation fusion plant, which it will call Copernicus and which it says will be completed by 2025. TAE was founded in 1998 and aims to build a commercial-scale fusion reactor that supplies power to the grid. in the early 2030s

Rendering of TAE Technologies’ new generation fusion machine called Copernicus.

Artistic rendering by TAE Technologies

The most common machine built to carry out fusion on Earth is the tokamak, which is a donut-shaped device and is a method being developed in ITERmultinational collaborative fusion project under construction in France, pictured below:

Installation of one of the giant 300-tonne magnets that will be used to hold the fusion reaction during construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) at the Cadarache site on September 15, 2021.

Jean-Marie Osatte | Gamma Rapho | Getty Images

Instead, TAE uses a linear machine, a long, thin structure known as a beam-steered, field-reversed configuration.

Plasma – the most energetic state of matter after gas – is generated at both ends of the TAE fusion machine and then ejected towards the middle, where the plasmas collide with each other and ignite the fusion reaction.

Another key difference in TAE’s approach to fusion is the fuel used. The most common source of fuel for thermonuclear reactions are deuterium and tritium, which are forms of hydrogen. the most common element in the universe. Deuterium occurs naturally, but tritium must be produced. (The Idaho National Laboratory team is working on a study tritium supply chain.)

But the TAE synthesis process uses hydrogen-boron (also known as proton-boron or p-B11) as fuel. Hydrogen-boron does not need a supply chain to process tritium, what TAE considers an advantage. The problem, however, is that the hydrogen-boron fuel source requires much higher temperatures than a deuterium-tritium fuel source.

“The fusion of a proton and boron11 is indeed much more difficult than the fusion of deuterium and tritium, for several reasons.” Nat FishProfessor astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, CNBC reported. Because the fuel is so small, it needs to be held longer for the fusion process to begin. “At the same time, the temperatures required to achieve even this smaller cross section are much higher,” Fish told CNBC. This means that a lot of energy is required to ignite the fusion reaction and keep it, as well as the plasma in which the reaction takes place, without polluting the reaction.

“In aggregate, this is a very, very complex problem, and it requires a very new learning curve. But the TAE team is very smart and moving very fast, so if someone is going to solve this problem, the TAE team is good to be the one to do it,” Fish said.