Fueled By Billionaire Dollars, Nuclear Fusion Enters A New Age

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After raising more than $3 billion in 2021 from the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Fusion developers insist this zero-carbon energy source could be a reality within a decade.

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It is clear that nuclear fusion can work on a large scale – just look at the stars. For 70 years Physicists dream of bottling that star power in the form of fusion reactors that will power the electrical grid with the same asynchronous, zero-carbon reactions that make the Sun shine. This Holy Grail Long has been advertised as only 20 or 30 years away, but Fusion fans refuse to give up on faith. And for good reason. Fusion (breaking together hydrogen atoms into helium) promises limitless zero-carbon electrical power with zero risk of meltdown and virtually none of the radioactive waste associated with existing nuclear power plants that run on fission (uranium splitting atoms into smaller elements).

Sapna inspired Ajay Royan, Cofounder of Mithril Capital (with billionaire Peter Thiel), who in 2013 invested before $2 million at Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy so that it can build a prototype “repetitive pulse power” machine. Mithril has since invested in Helion, including its recent $500 million round (valuing the company at $3 billion) — with a promise of $1.7 billion if the company’s seventh prototype works as expected. Helion’s round was led by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman.

The year 2021 was a big one for both Fusion financing and forecasting, as developers raised more than $3 billion to fund their next round of machines – some are now promising Fusion commercially viable in just five years . Ryan is happy to see Fusion gaining more attention; “Certainly 2021 could be a turning point for fusion according to Google Analytics, but the real turning point happened a decade ago when power electronics crossed a threshold.”

CEO David Kirtley explains that the initial R&D work behind Helion was done in federal laboratories, from which Helion was harvested in 2013. Free from federal R&D bureaucracy, Helion has since been building new prototypes one after the other. “The startup mindset isn’t a good thing, it’s a necessity. And that’s what we’ve focused on from the beginning,” Kirtley says.

In 2020 Helion completed its sixth prototype reactor, dubbed thirty, It is now building the seventh, polaris, already designing the eighth, Antares, which Kirtley intends to be the first fusion machine to expel energy in excess of its capacity. Along with rapid iteration, Helion benefits from local expertise. It’s building the Polaris machine in Everett, Wash., near Boeing’s largest factories, where they can tap into a welcoming ecosystem of contract engineers and precision makers. Curtley says they spend their mornings tinkering, updating systems, and powering capacitors. “Every afternoon at 3 a.m. we start doing fusions.”

Understand Helion’s point of view, first consider the magnetic repulsion that occurs when you try to force the positive poles of two bar magnets together. It is this principle that enables “mag-lev” technology like Japan’s famous bullet trains, that use magnetic repulsion To float on a cushion of air.

For decades fusion researchers have sought to develop the world’s strongest electromagnets, with which they engineer reaction chambers with magnetic fields, so that they heat an injected stream of positively charged protons into a ball of plasma so hot. so that they may fuse. helium

In Helion’s novel system, the energy released in fusion reactions continuously pushes against its magnetic containment field, which pushes it backwards—causing oscillations (“like a piston,” says Kirtley) that generate an electric current. , which Helion captures directly from the reactor. (For more, read more Faraday’s law of induction,

Mithril’s Royan says that perhaps the biggest attraction of Helion’s direct power generation method is its simplicity. Other fusion approaches aim to generate heat, boil water and power steam turbines, which create electricity – as in conventional nuclear power plants. “We can do this without steam turbines or cooling towers. We get rid of the power plant.”

To be sure, Kirtley Fusion understands skepticism, especially around its aggressive timetable. He began his career in the fusion field, inspired by scientists from national laboratories in the 1960s who had made great advances in magnetic control (with Russian scientists using donut-shaped reactors called tokamaks) even before the invention of the transistor. . But Kirtley lost confidence after determining the initial approach simply could not develop fast enough to achieve a commercial solution – so he went to work on advanced spacecraft propulsion using plasma jets controlled by electromagnets. He returned to the field in 2008 to help commercialize Helion’s technology.

Over time he envisions building a fusion generator in a factory. The 50-megawatt scale system, packaged in three shipping container-sized units, will power 40,000 homes. “In 10 years we will have commercial electricity for sale, for sure.”

This puts Helion in a race with Boston-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff that raised $1.8 billion from investors including Bill Gates and George Soros. CEO Bob Mumgaard says he will have a working reactor in 6 years. Their optimism is fueled by the Commonwealth’s successful summer test of a new electromagnet engineered with superconductors made from rare earth barium copper oxide.

Mumgaard says these super-powered magnets will enable the Commonwealth to carry out its somewhat more traditional fusion approach of building a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” reactor, which Mumgaard calls a “large magnetic bottle,” where powerful magnetic fields 100 million degrees govern balls of plasma – the “star stuff.”

There are about 150 tokamak worldwide; The largest is under construction in France for $30 billion by an international consortium called ITER. The 20,000-ton machine, the size of a basketball field, is expected to be completed by 2035.

But Mumgard intends to make Commonwealth Fusion obsolete before the completion of ITER. Its edge lies in the application of “high temperature” superconductors made from rare earth barium copper oxide (aka RebCO).

Superconductors transfer electric current with almost zero loss (far more efficiently than copper, for example). And they are the key to making powerful electromagnets. The Commonwealth has found that by making its magnets using a special barium copper oxide tape (such as the tape found in VHS cassettes) it can achieve a more powerful magnetic field than those anticipated in ITER, but on a 1/20th scale. .

While ITER’s primary magnets (called solenoids) will weigh around 400 tons and achieve a field stronger than 12 Tesla, Commonwealth is eyeing 15-ton magnets, each with 300 km of ReBCO thin-film Tape will be used, which will generate 20 Tesla (for comparison, a magnetic resonance imaging machine makes 1.5 Tesla).

“It unlocks the Fusion Machine,” says Mumgaard. CES tested the magnets last summer and declared it “evidence” that the science of fusion is now almost complete and that all that’s left is to build the reactor. “We understand the material very well and think we can do it in three years,” says Mumgaard. “By 2030 we will see fusion on the grid.”

CES is set to build its Fusion Machine on a 47-acre site in Massachusetts, and is already working to source thousands of kilometers of Rebco tape. Could the availability of rare earths become a limiting factor in Fusion’s rollout? No, says Mumgard. “A fusion plant will have less rare earths than a wind turbine. Fusion isn’t about the resource you need to mine or pump. It’s about a technology.”

There should be room for more than one Fusion winner. Other leaders include General Fusion based in Canada and backed by Jeff Bezos, that raised $130 million this year. Other notable billionaires in the fusion game are Neil and Lyndon Blue, the owner of San Diego-based General Atomics, which has operated a research tokamak on behalf of the DOE for decades, and which this year gave ITER the guts of its tokamak electromagnets — a 1,000 ton central solenoid, And there is TAE Energy of California, which has been experimenting with $1 billion for the past decade, and has raised $130 million during the pandemic.

Fusion technology may have made its debut in government-funded laboratories, but will have to rely on private funding for it to flourish. emi roma, partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., says the now-limbo build back better bill will include $875 million for advanced nuclear, but for now, the industry has to settle for a new Office of Advanced Reactor Demonstration under the Dept. Will have to do Energy, funded by the recent Infrastructure Act. Zero-carbon nuclear would also benefit from President Biden’s recent executive order, which called for the federal government to “net-zero” energy purchases by 2030.

Legendary tech investor Steve Jurvetson, a Commonwealth Fusion supporter who wrote his first checks on fusion research 25 years ago, is almost giddy that this long-postponed dream may soon become a reality. “Until it’s done, there are a lot of naysayers. Then they say it’s obvious.”

Mithril’s Royan says he’s already working on adjusting his structure to consider how…

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