Startups seeking to move nuclear fusion from the galaxy to the grid
- January 1, 2020: Vol. 7, Number 1

Startups seeking to move nuclear fusion from the galaxy to the grid

by Patricia Kakridas

“We are on the cusp of delivering a transformational energy source capable of sustaining the planet into the future,” says Michl Binderbauer.

He is the chief executive officer of TAE Technologies and among a group of visionary innovators seeking to harness the power of the sun and stars right here on earth. It sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi novel or comic book, but TAE is one of about a dozen private companies around the world — including General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems — working to make fusion power a reality.

Backed by the brightest minds in research and technology and the same big money investors who helped launch brands like Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, these companies are driven by a common mission to reduce carbon emissions and help developing nations get electricity.

“The majority of the expected increase in demand will be driven by those today that are undersupplied — those people in the underdeveloped part of the world who are not only demanding but pushing hard to get something even fractionally to where we are,” Binderbauer explains.

What is fusion? Quite simply it’s the process of generating energy by smashing two lighter atoms together, leading them to fuse into a single heavier atom. This is what happens in the core of stars across the universe. Energy is released when the two atoms fuse together to form a single nucleus. But getting from this reaction to a sustained source of energy is not as simple.

First, you need to heat a gas and turn it into a plasma, then keep that plasma reacting for a few seconds. That may not sound like a lot of time, but it takes a lot of energy to achieve. TAE’s technology is currently able to do just that, but getting there has taken 20 years of experiments and research, or what Binderbauer calls “small steps for small feet.”

For TAE, the next step is to generate more reactions for slightly longer periods of time. To successfully harness fusion power requires maintaining plasma at sufficiently high temperatures for a long enough amount of time and using less energy than the fusion reactions generate. This remains the biggest challenge to achieving commercial deployment of a fusion reactor. It’s why the long-standing joke in the scientific community is that fusion is always only 10 or 20 more years away.

“I think if everything goes well, we can achieve next-level experiments … by the end of 2023 or early 2024,” says Binderbauer. “To go from there to net energy [where we’re sending electrons to the grid], I think something around the late part of the ’20s is feasible. The more important part about this is that it really isn’t 30 years away.”

TAE’s ambitious timeline to commercial deployment follows a similar one for advanced nuclear technologies like small modular reactors and microreactors. But Binderbauer doesn’t see this as a competition or a choice between the next generation of nuclear technologies or a commercial fusion reactor.

In addition to private companies, progress is being made with ITER, the publicly funded 35-nation cooperative project to construct the world’s largest tokamak fusion test reactor. Currently about 60 percent complete, ITER expects to achieve what’s called “first plasma,” the first major milestone toward generating electricity with fusion, in December 2025. The central component that will allow for this sustained plasma, the world’s largest and most powerful superconducting solenoid magnet called the “heart of ITER,” is being manufactured in the United States by General Atomics.

Today, any familiarity with fusion outside of the scientific community can most likely be traced to pop culture. That could soon change as fusion energy research enters a new era and new advanced nuclear technologies come online, driven by viral pressure to achieve deep decarbonization across the world.

“There is a big opportunity and we actually have technologies that likely can make a dent in this problem,” says Binderbauer. “Because I think there will always be a role for nuclear technology, given that there’s nothing else like it.”


Patricia Kakridas is senior manager of member communications the Nuclear Energy Institute. Go to this link to read the original story on the NEI website:

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