Fusion Energy Advance was hailed by a Seattle startup

Zap Energy, a low-cost, low-cost thermonuclear startup, said last week it had taken an important step toward testing a system that researchers say will eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

This point is seen as a cornerstone in tackling the global energy challenge as it moves away from fossil fuels. An emerging global industry made up of almost three dozen start-up and heavily funded government development projects, it follows different concepts. Seattle-based Zap Energy stands out because its approach – if it works – would be simpler and cheaper than other companies.

Today’s nuclear power plants are based on fission, which captures the energy released from the fission of atoms. In addition to intense heat, by-products of the process include waste that remains radioactive for centuries. Nuclear fusionon the other hand, it reproduces the process that takes place inside the sun, where gravitational forces merge 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 bottling the power of the sun. Such a power plant would produce many times more electricity than it consumed without radioactive by-products. But none of the research projects came close to the goal. However, as fears of climate change increase, interest in technology is growing.

“We believe it is vital that fusion becomes part of our energy mix,” said Benge Conway, president of Zap Energy.

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

It relies on shaped plasma gas – an energetic cloud of particles, often described 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. The technique is known as “jump-stream Z-pinch”.

Zap Energy’s pinching approach is not new. It can be observed in the effects of lightning strikes as early as the 18th century and has been offered as a path to thermonuclear energy since the 1930s. While pinching occurs naturally from lightning strikes and solar flares, the challenge for engineers is to stabilize electrical and magnetic forces long enough in pulses – measured in millionths of a second – to produce radiation to heat the molten metal curtain.

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

If their system proves to be operational, Zap researchers say, it will be an order of magnitude cheaper than competing systems based on magnetic and laser restraint. It is expected to cost approximately the same as traditional nuclear energy.

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

Progress in stabilizing the magnetic field generated by the flowing plasma made by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to create Zap Energy in 2017. The company raised more than $ 160 million, including a series of investments from Chevron.

Recent technical advances in thermonuclear fuels and modern magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies worldwide, and private funding has grown to more than $ 4 billion, including from prominent technology investors such as Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doer, Bill Gates and Chris Saka. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invests in the last round of Zap funding.

But there are still vocal skeptics who argue that advances in fusion energy research are largely a mirage and that recent investments are unlikely to become commercial fusion systems in the near future.

Last fall, Daniel Jasby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, wrote in a bulletin of the American Physical Society that the United States is in the middle of another round of “fusion energy fever” that is coming and going every decade since the 1950s. of the last century. He argues that claims made by start-ups that they are on track to successfully build systems that produce more energy than they consume are unfounded.

“The fact that these allegations are widespread is due solely to the effective propaganda of promoters and laboratory speakers,” he wrote.

Physicists and executives at Zap Energy said in interviews last week that they believe they are within a year of proving that their approach is able to reach the long-sought point of energy profitability.

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

Zap Energy physicists said they had argued the “large-scale” strength of their approach to producing a sharp increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical documents documenting computer-generated simulations that will soon begin testing.

A version of the power plant system will envelop the reactor core in moving molten metal to capture neutron bursts, leading to intense heat that will be converted into steam, which in turn will generate electricity.

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

The technical challenge now is to validate what they simulated using a computer, he said. This will include ensuring that the plasma Z-clamp synthesis section remains stable and that they are able to design an electrode that can survive in the intense synthesis environment of the reactor.

Mr. Conway said he hoped Zap would be able to prove their concept quickly, as opposed to the big and expensive development efforts of the past, which were like “building a prototype iPhone for a billion dollars every 10 years.”

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