Fusion Energy Advance Recognized by Seattle Start-Up
Zap Energy, a fusion energy startup that works on a low-cost path to commercial power generation, said last week that it had taken significant steps to test a system that researchers believe will eventually generate more electricity than it consumes.
That point is seen as crucial to addressing global energy challenges as it moves out. Go from fossil fuels. The world’s emerging industry, consisting of nearly three dozen start-ups and highly funded government development projects, is running a diverse concept. Zap Energy, based in Seattle, stands out because its approach – if it works – will be easier and cheaper than other companies are doing.
Today’s nuclear power plants are based on fission, which captures the energy released by atomization. In addition to the intense heat, the products of this process include wastes that have been exposed to radiation for centuries. In contrast, nuclear fusion replicates a process that takes place within the sun, where gravity causes the hydrogen atom to fuse into helium.
For more than half a century, physicists have been tracking the vision of commercial power plants based on controlled fusion reactions, basically containing solar energy. The power plant will generate more electricity than it consumes and will not benefit from radiation. But none of the research projects approached the target. However, as fears of climate change increase, so does interest in technology.
“We think it’s important that fusion become part of our energy mix,” said Benj Conway, president of Zap Energy.
While many competitive efforts use powerful magnets or laser bursts to compress plasma to initiate fusion reactions, Zap is seeking pioneering methods by physicists at the University of Washington and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
It relies on the shape of plasma gas – a powerful cloud of particles, often described as the fourth state – that is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electric current as it flows through a two-meter vacuum tube. This technique is called “Z-pinch flow.”
Zap Energy’s “pinch” approach is nothing new. It may have been observed in the effects of lightning strikes in the early 18th century and has been proposed as a path to fusion energy since the 1930s. While clapping occurs naturally in lightning strikes and solar flares, the challenge for engineers is to stabilize the electric and magnetic forces long enough in the pulses – measuring millions of seconds – to produce radiation to heat the surrounding curtains of molten metal.
Brian Nelson, a retired nuclear engineer at the University of Washington and head of technology at Zap Energy, says the company has successfully injected plasma into a new, more powerful reactor core. It is now completing a power supply designed to provide enough power so that the company can prove that it is producing more energy than it can use.
If their system proves to work, Zap researchers say, it would be an order of magnitude more expensive than competing systems based on magnetism and laser confinement. It is expected to cost about the same as nuclear power.
Researchers trying to design the Z-pinch found that it was impossible to stabilize plasma and abandon the idea in magnetic terms, called the Tokamak reactor.
Advances in stabilizing the plasma-generated magnetic field produced by the University of Washington physicists led the Zap Energy founding group in 2017. The company raised more than $ 160 million, including an investment from Chevron.
Recent technical advances in advanced fusion and magnetic fuels have led to a significant increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies worldwide, and private equity has raised over $ 4 billion, including from well-known tech investors such as Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates and Chris Sacca. Gates and Sacca have invested in Zap’s latest fundraiser.
But there are skeptics who argue that most of the progress in fusion energy research is miraculous and that recent investments are unlikely to translate into any commercial fusion system any time soon.
Last spring, Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, wrote in a news release from the American Physical Society that the United States is in the midst of a “fusion energy fever,” which has come and gone every decade since the 1950s. He argued that the company’s claims start up that they are on track to succeed in building a system that produces more energy than they consume without a foundation in reality.
“These claims are widely believed to be due to the effective publicity of promoters and lab spokespersons,” he wrote.
Physicists and executives Zap Energy said in an interview last week that they believe they are within a year to prove their approach to the long-sought-after energy breakpoint.
If they do, they will succeed where much research effort – back to the middle of the last century – has failed.
Zap Energy physicists say they have made a case for the “expansion” of the power of their method to produce more neutrons in a series of technical papers reviewed by peers recording computer-generated simulations that they will soon begin testing.
The power plant version encloses the reactor core in the motion of the molten metal to catch the neutron explosion that causes intense heat, which is then converted into steam to generate electricity.
Uri Shumlak, physicist and professor at the University of Washington, who co-founded Zap Energy, said.
Their technical challenge now is to confirm what they simulate with a computer, he said. That would include ensuring that the Z-pinch fusion parts of the plasma are stable and that they can design an electrode that can survive in the reactor’s severe fusion environment.
Conway said he hopes Zap will be able to prove their concept quickly, unlike the costly development efforts of the past, which are similar to “creating a multi-billion dollar iPhone model every 10 years.”