TAE Technologies, a California-based company seeking to generate electricity from nuclear fusion, has reached a milestone in its research efforts – to produce stable plasma at 50,000,000 ° C – and raised $ 280 million in additional funding.
TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy) was founded in 1998 and has maintained a low public profile for a long time. However, it regularly shares updates on its results in academic journals and scientific conferences.
Simply put, commercial fusion requires a platform to keep plasma at a minimum temperature (three billion degrees Celsius) for a minimum period of time (several milliseconds) to allow fusion reactions: the “hot enough / long enough” threshold. TAE Technologies’ design does not limit plasma by using an external magnetic field;
instead, it confines the plasma to closed magnetic field lines with no central penetration. The plasma is held in a rotating, self-stable donut shape. Using this approach, TAE produced a stable plasma at 50,000,000 ° C in a compact reactor (called “Norman”), repeating this performance over hundreds of test cycles.
The company has conducted more than 25,000 fully integrated nuclear fusion experiments. The experiments are optimized with the most advanced computing processes available, including machine learning in collaboration with Google.
The success confirms a unique and promising advantage of TAE’s technology: a positive relationship between plasma confinement and reactor temperature. This approach can allow scaling up to the conditions required for an economically viable fusion plant.
TAE suggests that given these results, the company would be able to build a commercial fusion power plant by 2030. “This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and a fitting tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker.
Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s that theorized that a particular plasma dominated by high-energy particles should become increasingly confined and stable as the temperature rises, ”said Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE.
“We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful confirmation of our work over the past three decades and a very critical milestone for TAE, proving that the laws of physics are on our side.
“Norman’s milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach will bring fusion technology and, most importantly, economic fusion within reach.
As we move beyond the scientific validation phase and develop commercial-scale technical solutions for both our fusion and energy management technologies, TAE will make a significant contribution to modernizing the entire energy network.
“The milestone could bolster investor confidence in the prospect of commercially viable nuclear fusion, which has long been considered a holy grail of green energy. The additional $ 280 million investment the company has brought in means that TAE has now reached more than $ 880 million in funding from a range of investors including Google and the Wellcome Trust.
The company was valued at $ 2.6 billion in May 2019. TAE said the new funding will mainly be used for non-fusion-related work (such as commercializing its power management technology for electric vehicle charging) and a new reactor-scale facility called “Copernicus”.
This aims to operate above 100,000,000 ° C to simulate the net energy production of the conventional deuterium-tritium fuel cycle. This could provide the opportunity to license its deuterium-tritium fusion technology as it scales towards the goal of using advanced fuels via the hydrogen boron (also known as proton boron or p-B11) fuel cycle.
TAE’s ultimate goal is to provide carbon-free base load energy through the p-B11 fuel cycle. This cycle starts with a proton hitting a boron 11 core, creating a resonance in carbon 12. This then decays by emitting a high-energy alpha particle (a helium core), leaving an excited beryllium-8 core, which eventually decays into two low-energy alpha particles.
This cycle uses abundant materials and does not produce fast neutrons or radioactive waste. TAE claims that the products of the reaction should release enormous amounts of energy.