Fusion Energy Advance welcomes Seattle beginners

Zap Energy, a merger of energy startups working on a cheap way to generate commercial electricity, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system whose researchers think it will eventually generate more electricity than it consumes.

This point is seen as a step in solving the global energy challenge before it moves away from fossil fuels. The emerging global industry, consisting of nearly three dozen start-ups and heavily funded government development projects, implements a variety of concepts. Zap Energy, based in Seattle, stands out because its approach – if it works – will be simpler and cheaper than other companies do.

Today’s nuclear power plants are based on decay, which absorbs the energy released by the splitting of atoms. In addition to intense heat, process by-products include wastes that remain radioactive for centuries. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, replicates the process that takes place inside the sun, where gravitational forces combine hydrogen atoms into helium.

For more than half a century, physicists have been pursuing the vision of commercial power plants based on a controlled fusion reaction, essentially bottled solar power. Such a power plant will generate many times more electricity than consumed and without radioactive by-products. But none of the research projects are close to the goal. Nevertheless, fears of climate change are growing, interest in technology is growing.

“We think it’s vital that mergers become part of our energy mix,” said Ben Conway, president of Zap Energy.

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

It relies on a shaped plasma gas – an energetic cloud of particles, often described as the fourth state of matter – which 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 the “truncated flow Z-pinch”.

Zap Energy’s “Picho” approach is not new. It may have been recorded as a result of lightning strikes in the 18th century and has been proposed as a way of combining energy since the 1930s. Although the claws occur naturally during lightning and solar flares, it is a challenge for engineers to stabilize electrical and magnetic forces long enough in pulses – measured in milliseconds – to generate radiation and heat the surrounding molten metal curtain.

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

If their system works, Zap researchers say it will be cheaper in scale than competing systems based on magnet and laser constraints. It is expected that its cost will be about the same as traditional nuclear energy.

Researchers trying to design a Z-pinch found it impossible to stabilize the plasma and abandoned the idea in favor of a magnet approach known as the Tokamak Reactor.

Advances in magnetic field stabilization produced by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017. The company has amassed more than $ 160 million, including a series of Chevron investments.

According to the Fusion Industry Association, recent technical advances in fusion of fuel and advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment. There are 35 fusion companies in the world and private funding has increased to $ 4 billion, including from well-known technology investors such as Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doer, Bill Gates and Chris Saka. Mr. Gates and Mr. Saka invested in the last round of funding for Zap.

But there are still vocal skeptics arguing that progress in merger energy research is largely a mirage and that recent investments are unlikely to shift soon to commercial merger systems.

Last fall, Daniel Jasby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, wrote in the American Physical Society Newsletter that the United States was in the midst of another round of “merger energy heats” that comes and goes every decade since the 1950s. He argued that the claims of start-up companies that they had successfully built systems that produced more energy than they consumed had no basis in reality.

“The prevalence of these claims is based solely on the effective propaganda of promoters and laboratory speakers,” he wrote.

Zap Energy physicists and executives said in interviews last week that they believed they had proven within a year that their approach could reach the long-awaited energy break-even point.

If they do, they will succeed where a number of research efforts – in the middle of the last century – have failed.

Zap Energy physicists say they have confirmed the power of their approach to “scale” to produce a sharp increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers documenting computer-generated simulations that will soon be tested.

The power plant version of the system shields the reactor core from moving molten metal to catch neutron explosions, which will generate intense heat that is converted to steam, which in turn generates electricity.

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

Their technical challenge now is to validate what they did with their computer simulation, he said. This includes ensuring that the plasma Z-pinch fusion unit remains stable and that they can form an electrode that survives in a reactor-intensive fusion environment.

Mr Conway said he hoped Zap would be able to quickly prove its concept, in contrast to past large, costly development efforts that were similar to “building a billion-dollar iPhone prototype every 10 years”.

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