Replicating the nuclear reaction that drives the sun and other stars in a laboratory – known as nuclear fusion – is as complex an achievement as it sounds.
The fusion can produce enormous amounts of carbon-free or clean energy. Although no scientist has yet succeeded in extracting usable energy from the merger, a handful of companies are working on it.
The machines that scientists build to do this are called reactors. They are massively heavy, cost tens of millions of dollars, and are the culmination of decades of scientific research.
TAE Technologies, headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif., Is a merger company with a unique reactor design and recently reached a major milestone in the search for usable energy from the merger. TAE Technologies shared this virtual tour of their lab to explain the potential of fusion technology.
How to get to 50 million degrees Celsius
To re-establish fusion on Earth, a lighter atom like hydrogen must first be usedhas to be heated until the fourth state of matter, the plasma, is reached. (The first three states are solid, then liquid, then gaseous.)
Gas has to be “overheated” in order to generate plasma, says Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE Technologies.
Then the overheated plasma must be held long enough and in a steady state to release energy.
In April, TAE Technologies, which was founded in 1998, announced that it can generate stable plasma at more than 50 million degrees Celsius with its FRC (Field Reversed Configuration) machine. The machine is nicknamed Norman, after Binderbauer’s late mentor Norman Rostoker, “one of the popes of the field,” he says.
While this milestone is important, it isn’t the hottest temperature produced in a fusion laboratory. “The Chinese and Koreans have reached over 100 million degrees in their tokamaks [fusion machines] – a very different kind of experiment, “says Andrew Holland, executive director of the Fusion Industry Association.
The video embedded below shows how plasma is formed and sustained in TAE’s fusion machine.
Another type of fusion reactor
Typically the donut-shaped tokamak machines mentioned by Holland are used to attempt fusion. However, building and repairing TAE’s FRC reactor are more cost-effective and, according to Binderbauer, the system is less complex.
TAE’s Norman FRC machine, seen in the photos and in the video embedded below, cost $ 150 million and was built from mid-2016 to mid-2017.
It is 80 feet long and 22 feet high and weighs 60,000 pounds.
The machine first creates an internal vacuum. Then “we introduce a handful of particles – about a million times less dense than the air we’re sitting in in the room – so the amount of particles there is tiny,” Binderbauer told CNBC Make It.
Hydrogen gas is heated at each end of the machine to form a plasma. The two plasmas are then beaten together in the middle part of the machine. See this in the video clip embedded below.
Particle beam accelerators (seen with yellow ends in the photos below) hold the collapsed plasma in place so that fusion can take place.
TAE Technologies uses hydrogen-boron fuel, which is “the cleanest, most environmentally friendly fuel source on earth, with no harmful primary by-products and a sufficient natural supply to sustain the planet for virtually 100,000 years,” says Binderbauer. “As a species, we would probably be extinct by our own doing before we ran out of fuel.”
The use of hydrogen-boron “requires much higher temperatures to achieve fusion, so it is much more difficult,” says Holland.
Reaching 50 million degrees Celsius in April brought TAE a cash infusion of $ 280 million from investors such as Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google and the Kuwait Investment Authority, as well as the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg and Charles Schwab. In total, TAE Technologies raised $ 880 million from investors.
But 50 million degrees Celsius are still not hot enough to generate so-called “net energy”. With current technology, fusion uses all of the energy it generates to sustain its own response, leaving no net energy to power other things.
For net energy, TAE will use the latest funds to build a next generation FRC called the Copernicus, the illustration of which is embedded below. According to an April statement by TAE, it will “operate well over 100 million degrees Celsius to simulate net energy production”.
Copernicus’ design, which is similar to Norman, is still being finalized.
The future of merger
“Our game plan, which we have implemented, is to put a demonstration power plant online at the end of the 1920s so that you can go into commercialization,” says Binderbauer.
However, one of the most common criticisms of the merger is that it will take too long to be realized to help with climate change.
“Fusion has great potential to contribute to a clean energy future,” said Jonathan Cobb, senior analyst at the World Nuclear Association. But even if net energy is achieved in the 2020s, “widespread use of fusion is not possible”.
To be precise, there will be six years and eight months from April 30th before the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere causes global warming of the planet exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, the preferred limit of the global warming compared to pre-industrial levels as agreed by the Paris Agreement.
Binderbauer agrees that the time until the merger is usable is “significant”. But he believes fusion is still important. “In the next 25 years we will double the electricity demand worldwide,” he says. “So the question is how that is created.”
How Bill Gates’ TerraPower company is building next-generation nuclear power
This Google X spin-off offers a way to heat and cool your home with clean energy
This start-up, supported by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, aims to produce almost unlimited clean energy