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In a small An industrial park located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, one company says it has taken an important step in the development of new technology for producing electricity from nuclear fusion.

The 20-year-old fusion power technology developer TAE Technologies said its reactors could operate on a commercial scale by the end of the decade, thanks to its new ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures above 50 million degrees (almost twice as hot as the Sun).

The promise of fusion energy, an almost limitless source of energy with low emissions and no carbon footprint, has been exceeded for almost 70 years since humanity first harnessed the power of energy. nuclear. But a large number of companies – including TAE, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and a host of others in North America and around the world – are making rapid strides in seeking to bring technology to the realm of sci-fi. in the real world.

For TAE Technologies, this achievement serves as a validation of the life’s work of Norman Rostoker, one of the company’s co-founders who had dedicated his life to fusion energy research and died before seeing the company. that he helped create reach his final milestone.

“This is an extremely rewarding step and a fitting tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” current TAE CEO Michl Binderbauer said in a statement announcing the company’s accomplishments. “Norman and I wrote an article in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by high energetic particles should become more and more confined and stable as temperatures rise. We have now been able to demonstrate this behavior of plasma with overwhelming evidence. It’s a powerful validation of our work over the past three decades, and a very critical step for TAE to prove that the laws of physics are on our side.

Rostoker’s legacy lives on inside TAE via the company’s technology platform, aptly called “Norman”. Over the past 18 months, this technology has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching over 50 million degrees in several hundred test cycles.

Six years ago, the company proved that its reactor design could hold plasma indefinitely – meaning that once the switch is pulled on a reaction, that fusion reaction can go on indefinitely. Now, the company said, it has reached the temperatures necessary to make its reactors commercially viable.

It is through these milestones that TAE was able to raise an additional $ 280 million in funding, bringing the total to $ 880 million and making it one of the best-funded private nuclear fusion companies in the world.

“The Norman Milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within reach technologically and, more importantly, economically,” said Binderbauer. “As we move out of the scientific validation phase to design commercial scale solutions for our fusion and energy management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor to the modernization of the entire energy grid.”

The company is not yet producing energy and will not be doing so for the foreseeable future. The company’s next goal, according to Binderbauer, is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary to produce energy from a fusion reaction.

“The energy is tiny. It does not matter. It’s a needle in the haystack, ”Binderbauer said. “In terms of energetic discernability, we can use it for diagnostics.”

TAE Technologies Michl Binderbauer stands next to the company’s new fusion reactor. Image credits: TAE Technologies

Follow the sun

It took TAE Technologies $ 150 million and five iterations to get to Norman, its national lab-scale fusion device. The company said it has conducted more than 25,000 fully integrated fusion reactor core experiments, optimized using machine learning programs developed in collaboration with Google and the processing power of the Department of Energy’s INCITE program. , which takes advantage of computation at the exascale level, said TAE Technologies.

The new machine was first put into operation in the summer of 2017. Before it could even be built, TAE Technologies went through a decade of experimentation to even begin to tackle building a physical prototype. In 2008, the first construction started on integrated experiments to make a plasma core and infuse it with energetic particles. The power technology and the beams alone cost $ 100 million, Binderbauer said. Then the company had to develop other technologies such as vacuum packaging. Power control mechanisms were also to be put in place to ensure that the company’s 3-megawatt power supply could be stored in enough containment systems to power a 750-megawatt energy reaction.

Finally, machine learning capabilities were to be harnessed with companies like Google and the computational power of the Department of Energy was to be harnessed to handle calculations that could take what had been the theorems that defined the work of Rostoker’s life and prove that they could be brought to fruition. .

“By the time Norman became an operational machine, four generations of devices preceded it. Among these were two fully integrated machines and two generations of incremental machines that could do part of it, but not all of it. “

Burning Fusion Energy Problems

While fusion holds great promise as a zero-carbon energy source, it is not without serious limitations, as Daniel Jassby, former principal physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab noted in a Bulletin article. of the Atomic Scientists 2017.

Jassby wrote:

Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: energetic neutron fluxes account for 80% of the fusion energy production of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35% deuterium-deuterium reactions.

Now, an energy source composed of 80% energetic neutron flux may be the ideal solution. neutron source, but it’s really weird that it’s ever hailed as the ideal electric energy source. In fact, these neutron fluxes lead directly to four unfortunate problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological protection; and the potential for producing military-grade plutonium 239 – thereby adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not reducing it, as the proponents of fusion would like.

Furthermore, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible – as assumed here – they would share some of the other serious problems plaguing fission reactors, including the release of tritium, daunting refrigerant demand, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks specific to fusion devices: the use of a fuel (tritium) which is not found in nature and which must be replenished by the reactor itself; and the inevitable electrical evacuations on site which considerably reduce the electrical power available for sale.

TAE Technologies is aware of the issues, according to a company spokesperson, and the company has noted the issues Jassby has raised in developing its products, the spokesperson said.

“All the tritium calls are exactly the reason TAE has focused on pB-11 as a raw material from the very beginning (early 90s). TAE will achieve DT conditions as a natural stepping stone to pB-11, as it only bakes at ‘only’ 100 M c, while pB-11 is greater than 1 M c, “the spokesperson wrote in a response. “It would seem like a much more difficult realization to then go to 1M, but what this step proves is the ‘law of scaling’ for the type of merge that TAE generates – in an FRC (the design linear of “Norman”, unlike the Tokamaks donut) the hotter the plasma, the more stable it becomes. It is the opposite of a [Tokamak]. This milestone gives them scientific confidence that they can raise temperatures beyond DT to pB11 and achieve a fusion with boron – cheap, aneutronic, abundant – the ideal terrestrial raw material (let’s not go into mining of the moon for helium-3!).

Regarding power issues, the TAE fusion reactor can convert a 2MW grid feed to 750MW plans on the machine without dismantling the Orange County grid (and needing to prove it to SCE), and changing the energy demand in microseconds to mold and correct the course of the plasmas. in real time, wrote the spokesperson.

In fact, TAE will split its energy management technology into a separate business focused on peak shaving, energy storage and battery management on the grid and in electric vehicles.

A “safer” fusion technology?

The Hydrogen-Boron fuel cycle, or p-B11, is, according to the company, the most abundant fuel source on earth, and will be the ultimate raw material for TAE Technologies’ reactor, according to the company. But initially, TAE, like most other companies currently developing fusion technologies, will work with deuterium-tritium as a fuel source.

The “Copernicus” demonstration facility, which will be built using some of the new capital that the company has announced it is raising, will start on the DT fuel cycle and eventually make the switch. Over time, TAE hopes to license DT technology while achieving its ultimate goal.

Funding for the “money-by-steps” approach to business is among the richest families, businesses and businesses in the world. Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google, and the Kuwait Investment Authority are all backers. The same goes for the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg and Charles Schwab.

“TAE provides the miracles the 21st century needs,” said Addison Fischer, director of TAE’s board of directors and long-time investor who has been involved in conservation and environmental issues for decades. Fischer also founded VeriSign and is a pioneer in defining and implementing security technologies underpinning modern e-commerce. “TAE’s most recent funding allows the company to take its penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and energy management solutions that will benefit the planet.”

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