Zap Energy, a fusion energy start-up that operates on a low-cost basis to generate electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system that its researchers believe would eventually lead to more electricity than it consumes. Will produce.
That point is seen as a milestone in solving the world’s energy challenge as it moves away from fossil fuels. The emerging global industry, made up of about three dozen start-ups and heavily funded government development projects, is pursuing a variety of concepts. Seattle-based Zap Energy is different because its approach – if it works – will be simpler and cheaper than what other companies are doing.
Today’s nuclear power plants are based on splitting, which captures the energy released by splitting atoms. In addition to intense heat, by-products of the process include waste that has been radioactive for centuries. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, mimics the process that takes place inside the sun, where gravitational forces attach hydrogen atoms to helium.
For more than half a century, physicists have pursued the idea of a commercial power plant based on a controlled fusion reaction, essentially bottling solar power. Such a power plant will generate many times more electricity than it consumes and without radioactive by-products. But no research project has ever come close to the goal. However, as the threat of climate change grows, so does the interest in technology.
“We think it’s important that fusion be a part of our energy mix,” said Benz Conway, president of Zap Energy.
While many competitive endeavors use powerful magnets or laser light blasts to compress plasma to initiate fusion reactions, Zap adopts an approach initiated by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
It depends on the shape of the plasma gas – an excited cloud of particles, often described as the fourth state of matter – which is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electric current flowing through a two-meter vacuum tube. This technique is known as “Shield Flow Z-Pinch”.
Zap Energy’s “pinch” approach is not new. It may have been seen in the effects of lightning strikes in the early 18th century and has been proposed as a route to fusion energy since the 1930s. When lightning strikes and solar flares occur naturally, the challenge for engineers is to stabilize the long-term electrical and magnetic forces in the pulses – measured in millionths of a second – to produce radiation to heat the membrane around the molten metal.
Brian Nelson, a retired nuclear engineer at the University of Washington and chief technology officer at Zap Energy, said the company has successfully injected plasma into newer and more powerful experimental reactor cores. It is now completing a power supply designed to provide the company with enough energy to prove that it is possible to produce more energy than it consumes.
If their system proves to be efficient, Zap researchers say, it will be a less expensive order than competing systems based on magnets and laser capture. It is expected to cost the same as conventional nuclear energy.
Researchers attempting a Z-pinch design have found it impossible to stabilize plasma and have abandoned the idea in favor of a magnetic approach known as the Tokmak reactor.
Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field generated by flowing plasma created by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017.
According to the Fusion Industry Association, recent technological advances in fusion fuels and advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment. There are 35 fusion companies globally, and private funding has exceeded $ 4 billion, including well-known technology investors such as Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doer, Bill Gates and Chris Saka. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s most recent funding round.
But there are still voice skeptics who argue that advances in fusion energy research are largely mirage and that recent investments are unlikely to translate into a commercial fusion system anytime soon.
Last fall, Daniel Jesby, a retired plasma physicist at Princeton University, wrote in the American Physical Society’s newsletter that the United States was in the middle of a second round of “fusion energy fever,” which has been coming and going every decade since the 1950s. He argued that the claims made by start-up companies that they were on track to successfully build systems that produced more energy than they consumed had no basis in reality.
“These claims are widely believed to be due to the effective publicity of promoters and laboratory spokesmen,” he wrote.
Zap Energy physicists and officials said in interviews last week that they believed they were within a year of proving that their approach was capable of reaching the long-desired energy break-even point.
If they do, they will succeed where a series of research efforts – going back to the middle of the last century – have failed.
Zap Energy physicists said they have made the case for a sharp increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers for the “scaling” power of their approach, documenting computer-generated simulations that they will soon begin testing.
The power plant version of the system will cover the reactor core to move the molten metal to capture neutron explosions as a result of intense heat, which will be converted into steam which in turn will generate electricity.
Each reactor core will generate about 50 megawatts of electricity, enough to power at least 8,000 homes, said Uri Schumlak, a physicist and professor at the University of Washington who co-founded Zap Energy.
Their technical challenge now is to confirm what they have simulated through the computer, he said. This includes ensuring that the Z-pinch fusion section of the plasma remains stable and that they are able to design an electrode that can withstand the intense fusion atmosphere of the reactor.
Mr. Conway said he hopes that, unlike past big, high-cost development efforts, Zap will be able to quickly prove his point, which is like “building a billion-dollar iPhone prototype every 10 years.”