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News Article | October 17, 2016
Site: www.theguardian.com

A nuclear fusion world record has been set in the US, marking another step on the long road towards the unlocking of limitless clean energy. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created the highest plasma pressure ever recorded, using its Alcator C-Mod tokamak reactor. High pressures and extreme temperatures are vital in forcing atoms together to release huge amounts of energy. Nuclear fusion powers the sun and has long been touted as the ultimate solution to powering the world while halting climate change. But, as fusion sceptics often say, the reality has stubbornly remained a decade or two away for many years. Now MIT scientists have increased the record plasma pressure to more than two atmospheres, a 16% increase on the previous record set in 2005, at a temperature of 35 million C and lasting for two seconds. The breakthrough was presented at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s fusion summit in Japan on Monday. Successful fusion means getting more energy out than is put in and this requires the combination of pressure, temperature and time to pass a critical value at which point the reaction becomes self-sustaining. This remains elusive but the MIT record shows that using very high magnetic fields to contain the plasma may be the most promising route to practical nuclear fusion reactors. “This is a remarkable achievement,” said Dale Meade, former deputy director at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “The record plasma pressure validates the high-magnetic-field approach as an attractive path to practical fusion energy.” Prof Riccardo Betti, at the University of Rochester, New York, said: “This result confirms that the high pressures required for a burning plasma can be best achieved with high-magnetic-field tokamaks such as Alcator C-Mod.” However, the world record was achieved on the last day of the MIT tokamak’s operation, because funding from the US Department of Energy has now ended. The US, along with the EU, China, India, South Korea, Russia and Japan, are now ploughing their fusion funding into a huge fusion reactor called ITER. The giant, seven-storey-high tokamak is being built in southern France, with magnets weighing about the same as a Boeing 747. The volume of ITER’s tokamak will be 800 times bigger than the MIT vessel. ITER should be completed in 15-20 years and aims to deliver 500MW of power, about the same as today’s large fission reactors. But the project has been hampered by delays. In the meantime, there are numerous private companies hoping to develop small scale nuclear fusion reactors. One is Tokamak Energy, a spin-off from the UK’s national fusion lab, which uses high-temperature superconductors to create the magnetic field to contain the fusion plasma. The MIT tokamak used copper magnets, which require use more power. Dr David Kingham, chief executive of Tokamak Energy, said the important aspect of the MIT world record was that it showed extreme conditions can be created in small tokamaks: the volume of the MIT device is just one cubic metre. “The conventional view is that tokamaks have to be huge [like ITER] to be powerful,” he said. “The MIT people disagree with that view, as do we.” Kingham’s target is for his company’s compact reactors to produce their first electricity by 2025. Rival companies also backing small fusion reactors include Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works team. In 2014 said they would produce a truck-sized fusion plant in a decade but attracted criticism for providing few details. Others in the field include Tri Alpha Energy, which harnesses particle accelerator technology and is backed by Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder. General Fusion, which uses a vortex of molten lead and lithium to contain the plasma, is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Helion Energy, First Light Fusion and the University of Washington’s Dynomak are all also chasing the fusion dream. Prof Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, said small, non-tokamak approaches, though less familiar, could be promising: “Compact, high-field tokamaks provide an exciting opportunity for accelerating fusion energy development, so that it’s available soon enough to make a difference to problems like climate change and the future of clean energy, goals I think we all share.”


News Article | December 2, 2016
Site: www.theguardian.com

“We are standing on the ground that could change the future of energy,” says engineer Laurent Pattison, deep in the reactor pit of the world’s biggest nuclear fusion project. Around him is a vast construction site, all aimed at creating temperatures of 150mC on this spot and finally bringing the power of the sun down to Earth. The €18bn (£14.3bn) Iter project, now rising fast from the ground under the bright blue skies of Provence, France, is the first capable of achieving a critical breakthrough: getting more energy out of the intense fusion reactions than is put in. “It is a bet that is very important for humanity,” says Johannes Schwemmer, the director of Fusion for Energy, the EU partner in the international Iter collaboration. “We need to get this energy once and for all.” The long allure of nuclear fusion is simple: clean, safe, limitless energy for a world that will soon house 10bn energy-hungry citizens. But despite 60 years of research and billions of dollars, the results to date are also simple: it has not delivered. Fusion is in danger of following its atomic cousin, conventional fission nuclear power, in over-promising – “electricity too cheap to meter” – and under-delivering. The Iter project itself, which stems from a cold war Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1985, has seen years of turmoil. The US pulled out entirely between 1998-2003 and in 2008, Iter had to treble its budget and shift its deadline back a decade. But leaders representing half the world’s population – through the Iter partners, the EU, China, Russia, US, India, Japan and South Korea – are now making the €18bn wager that fusion can deliver and have radically overhauled Iter’s management to fix the mistakes of the past. The goal is to trap a plasma in a huge magnetic ring and force heavy hydrogen isotopes to fuse together to release prodigious amounts of energy – four times more than the splitting of uranium atoms produces in conventional fission reactors. “We are convinced we can deliver hundreds of megawatts through Iter,” up to 10 times more energy than is put in, says David Campbell, the director of science and operations at Iter (which means “the way” in Latin). To achieve that breakthrough, Iter will use a donut-shaped magnetic cage called a tokamak to trap the plasma. More than 200 smaller tokamaks have been built around the world and Campbell says the decades of physics and engineering that Iter is building on is a strong guarantee of success. But nothing has ever been attempted on the scale of Iter. The world record for fusion power – 16MW - was set in 1997 at the JET reactor in the UK. The longest fusion run – six minutes and 30 seconds – was achieved at France’s Tore Supra in 2003. Iter is aiming for 500MW and 50-minute runs. The site is a cathedral to the fusion dream: it spans the equivalent of 60 football fields and the reactor building will weigh 320,000 tonnes, all resting on rubber bearings in case of an unlikely, but not impossible, earthquake. The reactor itself will weigh 23,000 tonnes, three times more than the Eiffel Tower. It is the most complex engineering project in history. More than 2,800 tonnes of superconducting magnets, some heavier than a jumbo jet, will be connected by 200km of superconducting cables, all kept at -269C by the world’s largest cryogenic plant, which will pump 12,000 litres per hour of liquid helium. Millions of precision components will be shipped in from the seven partners to be assembled by thousands of workers. This is all aimed at keeping just two grammes of plasma hot enough and stable enough in the 30m-diameter tokamak for fusion to take place. Iter’s schedule is to create the first plasma in 2025, then start firing tiny 5mm frozen pellets of heavy hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – into the plasma and generating energy. Deuterium is easily refined from seawater and fuses with tritium, which is harvested from fission reactors but could be self-generated in Iter in future. The aim is to reach its maximum power output by 2035 and, if so, Iter will be the foundation of the first fusion power plants. Bernard Bigot, the director general of Iter, is certain it will produce plentiful power, “but what is not granted so far is that this technology will be simple and efficient enough that it could be industrialised,” he says. The point of Iter is finding out, says Bigot: “The world needs to know if this technology is available or not. Fusion could help deliver the energy supplies of the world for a very long time, maybe forever.” Even if things go well, getting real fusion power plants online before 2050 would be a triumph, raising an awkward question: what if fusion comes too late? Climate change is driving an accelerating transformation to low-carbon energy and drastic cuts in emissions are needed by 2050. If these are achieved, will there be a need for fusion power, which will be expensive at the start? “It is certainly not going to be too cheap to meter,” says Campbell. But it’s a question of timescale, he says: “In the long term there are very few available options: renewables, fission and fusion.” For Schwemmer, there is only one long-term option. “You would have to cover whole continents with wind turbines to produce the energy needed for 10 billion people,” he says. “And if our children’s children are not to sit on piles of [fission] nuclear waste, we have to make fusion work. Even if it takes till 2100, we should still do it.” Nuclear fission is also limited by uranium supplies, perhaps to a few decades if it were to play a large role. Bigot said: “People have to realise, if we want a breakthrough [that could provide energy] for millions of years, 10 or 20 years is nothing.” He thinks fusion may still come in time to meet the need to move the world to zero emissions in the second half of the century to defeat global warming. As a nuclear technology, some will remain implacably opposed to fusion. While fusion reactions produce only harmless helium, the high-energy neutrons also ejected irradiate the walls of the reactor, leading to radioactive waste. Again, the key is timescale, says Campbell. Waste from fission can remain radioactive for 250,000 years, making plans to store dangerous waste for many times longer than the whole of human civilisation speculative. In contrast, fusion waste will decay on the scale of decades. “Looking after the waste for 100 years is credible,” he says. Fusion is also intrinsically safe, with the large meltdowns seen in fission accidents such as Fukushima and Chernobyl physically impossible. Part of the reason is the tiny amount of fuel in a fusion reactor at any one time and part is the temperamental nature of plasma, a boiling gas of ions and electrons. “If you lose control of the plasma, it doesn’t just sit there, it disappears like that,” says Campbell, clicking his fingers. “After Fukushima, we thought we would be flushed down the toilet like all nuclear,” says Sabina Griffith, a communications manager at Iter. “But the opposite happened – governments thought if not fission, then what?” There are other fusion reactor designs that might be better and, in particular, smaller. A €1bn reactor opened in Germany by chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in 2016 uses a stellarator, in which the plasma ring is shaped like a Mobius strip. This makes it potentially more stable and, crucially, able to operate continuously, rather than in pulses like a tokamak. There are also numerous private companies, staffed by serious fusion researchers, promising much smaller reactors, including the UK’s Tokamak Energy and Tri Alpha Energy and General Fusion in Canada. “There are technology routes that might let you build something smaller – in principle,” says Campbell. But he says they either rely on unproven “exotic” ideas or underestimate the heavy engineering needed to contain burning plasmas. “Iter is the size our present technology allows us to build,” he says. Politics remains a challenge to delivering Iter and uncertainty has been ramped up by the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, where some powerful voices want to leave the project for good. Britain’s vote to leave the EU has also added to the uncertainty. But Bigot believes the need to know if full fusion power is feasible will keep the partners in. “To be frank, the US is only 9% of the project, if they were to leave alone, I believe we could go on,” he said. “But it would be the wrong signal [showing] the most powerful country in the world is not preparing for its future.” On Brexit he says: “It would damage Iter a little, but it would damage the UK a lot,” given its long and continuing research in fusion. The political problems usually boil down to costs and the governments of Iter partners wanting to reduce the taxpayers’ money spent on the project. “Iter looks very expensive to the ordinary person in the street,” says Campbell. “But the cost is spread across half the world’s population. Seen in that context I don’t think it is such a big investment to make.” The world spent $325bn on fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 alone, according to the IEA, and $150bn on renewable energy support. Fusion supporters such as Campbell also suggest fusion has geopolitical benefits because its key fuel – heavy hydrogen – is accessible to all. “No one has a monopoly on the fuel so no one is going to fight each other over it.” The 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit that kickstarted the Iter project called for “the widest practicable development of international collaboration” in nuclear fusion to obtain “energy which is essentially inexhaustible, for the benefit of all mankind”. So how far is the world from achieving that, 30 years and numerous stumbles on? Many still point to the answer given by Lev Artsimovich, the father of the tokamak and head of the Soviet fusion power programme for more than two decades until his death in 1973. Fusion power, he said, will arrive “when mankind needs it – maybe a short time before that”. • This article was amended on 2 December 2016 to correct General Fusion’s location.


News Article | January 27, 2016
Site: www.sciencenews.org

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing. Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage. “If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains. His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort: a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation. Government-funded research programs have spent tens of billions of dollars trying to harness fusion power during the last 60 years or so. Some are using superstrong magnetic fields to bottle up hydrogen gas that’s been heated up so much that it becomes plasma, a state of matter in which the electrons are stripped away from atomic nuclei. Others are blasting pellets of hydrogen fuel with powerful lasers or ion beams, causing tiny but powerful implosions. Although they’ve come up short so far, the government-funded groups insist they’ll achieve controlled fusion sometime in the next couple of decades. For commercial fusion plants to deliver substantial amounts of electricity to power grids, however, will probably take until the 2040s or 2050s. In contrast, General Fusion and at least 10 other commercial ventures say they can get fusion to pay off within a decade, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars rather than tens of billions. The upstarts are going with unorthodox approaches, ranging from piston-driven engines to devices that have more in common with particle accelerators than traditional nuclear reactors. And they’re finding deep-pocketed investors who are willing to cover the cost. Not everyone is impressed. “For the most part, these ideas are recycled from the glory days of the 1980s, and one by one, the Department of Energy stopped funding those concepts,” says Edward Morse, a nuclear engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s fortunate that the investors who are quoted in these reports are very rich people. They may not miss the money.” But the start-ups insist they’re adding new twists to those decades-old principles. They plan to use computer simulations, innovative engineering and an entrepreneurial mindset to leapfrog the government projects. “You can’t do what we do for a million bucks,” says Michl Binderbauer, chief technology officer for Tri Alpha Energy, a fusion research company headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif. “There’s a certain level of capital expense that comes with doing frontier science.… But I don’t believe it takes billions of dollars. I really don’t.” If perfected, fusion power technology could be worth trillions. Fusion power has several advantages over nuclear fission power, in which heavy atomic nuclei release energy upon splitting. The best-known fusion fuel, the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium, can be extracted from seawater. There’d be no worries about long-lived highly radioactive waste, and a fusion reactor keeps so little fuel inside that it would naturally stop if something went wrong — avoiding the risk of a Fukushima-style meltdown or Chernobyl-style radiation leak. Fusion power also eliminates worries about the fossil fuel emissions that are warming Earth’s climate. It would be a renewable energy source like solar and wind power, with some extra advantages. The reactors could be put anywhere to provide 24/7 power; no need for strong winds or bright sunshine. “It really does have all the benefits you could ever want from a renewable energy source,” says Nathan Gilliland, General Fusion’s CEO. “One kilogram of hydrogen fuel has the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of coal. You’d have abundant fuel for hundreds of millions, billions of years.” It’s that kind of enormous potential that has brought money pouring in to solve the fusion puzzle. Dozens of projects — from Astron to ZETA — have flowered and faded. The biggest project on the horizon is the ITER experimental reactor in Cadarache, France, which is backed by the United States and 34 other nations. ITER’s price tag and construction timetable have both ballooned beyond original estimates. The project is now due for completion in the mid-2020s at an estimated cost of $20 billion. Once ITER is up and running, it’s expected to demonstrate a controlled fusion reaction that produces an energy surplus. But even under the best-case scenario, it would take until the 2040s to adapt ITER’s technology for use in a commercial power plant. The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, another advanced reactor, has just begun what’s expected to be a years-long experimental campaign in Greifswald, Germany. The German government has covered most of its $1 billion cost, but it’s far too early to tell if the technology can ever be commercialized. ITER and Wendelstein 7-X both use a fusion approach called magnetic confinement. At the heart of each device is a chamber shaped like a doughnut (in Cadarache) or a pretzel (in Greifswald). Inside the chamber, a cloud of hot hydrogen plasma is squeezed by magnetic fields. An electromagnetic barrage heats the plasma so much that hydrogen nuclei fuse — creating helium atoms and neutrons while converting a smidgen of mass into electro­magnetic radiation and kinetic energy. The other common strategy for fusion is called inertial confinement. This approach involves blasting pellets of hydrogen fuel with lasers or ion beams. The fuel is compressed so quickly and precisely that it’s held in place by its own inertia, allowing it to ignite in a burst of fusion energy. The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uses inertial confinement, but has fallen short. It doesn’t produce more energy than it consumes in the fusion reaction (SN: 3/8/14, p. 6). A couple of the fusion start-ups — Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion, both in the United Kingdom  — are experimenting with their own twists on magnetic confinement or inertial confinement. But the best-funded private efforts are focusing on hybrid technologies alternately known as magnetized target fusion, field-reversed configuration or magneto-inertial fusion. In magneto-inertial fusion, puffs of hydrogen are heated, then magnetized so that they hold together. Those magnetized puffs of plasma, which take on the shape of tiny smoke rings, are injected into a compression chamber, where they must be squeezed hard enough and fast enough to spark fusion. Although the concept has been around for decades, magnetized target fusion was traditionally passed over in favor of the technologies behind ITER and the National Ignition Facility. That’s beginning to change. The Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico is using the method in an experiment known as FRCHX. Most of the work on magnetized target fusion, however, is happening at the private start-ups. At General Fusion, for example, engineers are building steampunk-looking machines that they’ll eventually combine into a full-scale reactor. One contraption is designed to squirt plasma rings through a 10-foot-high, cone-shaped injector. In a different room, there’s a mechanical monster with black tubes reaching out in all directions. When program manager Brendan Cassidy talks about the monstrous creation, he sounds like a mad scientist from the movies — but without the evil laugh. “We have successfully built the first device to pump liquid lead into a vortex, and use an acoustic driver to collapse the vortex,” he says proudly. In the full-scale reactor, two rings of magnetized plasma — consisting of deuterium and tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen — will be shot toward each other in a chamber with a spinning vortex of liquid lead and lithium. The pistons surrounding the chamber should slam the metal around the plasma hard enough to set off a fusion reaction. The resulting energy will heat the molten lead even more. That liquid metal will circulate through a heat exchanger, turning water into steam to drive a power-generating turbine. Some of the lithium will be transformed into tritium to fuel further reactions. For its full-scale prototype, General Fusion will expand the plasma chamber from 1 meter wide to 3 meters. The number of pistons will grow from 14 to 220, bringing the setup to about 10 meters wide. If that next machine works the way researchers hope, they’ll get a successful fusion shot once or twice a day. To commercialize the technology, they’ll need a more advanced reactor firing an energy-generating shot every second. When it’s time to commercialize, General Fusion would license the technology to the power industry. “If we ever succeed, we will partner with the GEs of this world,” says Michel Laberge, the physicist who founded General Fusion. While government programs focus on magnetic and inertial confinement, private ventures try hybrid approaches. Magnetic Confinement Fusion: Powerful magnetic fields contain a hot plasma of fusion fuel inside a chamber, and electromagnetic waves are injected into the plasma to raise the temperature high enough for fusion. Inertial Confinement Fusion: A pulse of high energy is focused on a target quickly and precisely, squeezing the target and heating it to fusion conditions. Magneto-inertial Fusion: Puffs of hot plasma are magnetized, then directed at each other under conditions that squeeze the plasma hard enough and long enough for fusion to occur. Hover your mouse over the image below to explore different fusion ventures. Red dots indicate magnetic confinement fusion, blue dot indicates inertial confinement approach, and yellow dots indicate magneto-inertial approaches.  Sources: ITER; MPG-IPP; D. Clery/Science 2015; “An Assessment of the Prospects for Inertial Fusion Energy”/NRC 2013; General Fusion; Tri Alpha Energy; Helion Energy Tri Alpha Energy is borrowing physics principles from particle colliders to pursue its own brand of magnetic fusion. In Tri Alpha’s reactor design, starter plasmas are formed by merging two magnetized plasma rings. The compound plasmas are then sustained by high-energy particles from accelerators. “It will work as an energy amplifier,” Tri Alpha’s Binderbauer says. Most fusion ventures, including ITER and General Fusion, plan to use deuterium plus tritium to fuel the reaction. Tri Alpha is trying a less-orthodox combination: hydrogen nuclei — that is, single protons — and boron-11 ions. Tri Alpha’s concept has some advantages. It relies on naturally occurring fuels rather than unstable tritium, which must be bred in a nuclear reaction like the one in General Fusion’s machine. What’s more, the proton-boron reaction, known as p-B11, is more benign than the deuterium-tritium reaction, known as D-T (SN: 11/2/13, p. 8). Each D-T reaction produces a helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons) plus a neutron. The resulting flux of neutrons poses a radiation hazard and can degrade whatever material is being used to shield the reactor. The p-B11 reaction gives off energy without producing stray neutrons. Such aneutronic fusion is especially attractive for commercial operations. However, achieving fusion is a lot more difficult with p-B11 than with D-T. The plasma must reach temperatures in excess of 3 billion degrees Celsius, as opposed to 100 million degrees for D-T fusion. But Binderbauer says the potential payoff is worth it. “You’re trading harder science up front for easier engineering down the hill,” he says. General Fusion and Tri Alpha Energy have both been around for more than a decade, but they are just beginning to publish intriguing findings in peer-reviewed journals. In a pair of papers published last April and May in Nature Communications and AIP Physics of Plasmas, Tri Alpha’s researchers reported that they held 10-million-degree hydrogen plasma steady in a test reactor for 5 milliseconds. Five milliseconds may not sound like a long time, but it marked a milestone for fusion start-ups. “If we had enough power to continually pump into it … we believe we could maintain the plasma at will,” Richard Barth, Tri Alpha’s senior vice president for government relations, said in December at a forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the American Security Project. Tri Alpha says its next, bigger reactor, C-2W, should heat plasma to much higher temperatures. Within three or four years, that machine is expected to come close to sparking a sustained D-T fusion reaction. If C-2W performs as expected, Binderbauer says, he expects Tri Alpha will build an even more powerful machine and try p-B11 fusion. Instead of using a steam turbine to convert heat into electricity, Tri Alpha’s machine would use a more efficient method to convert the flow of particles into electrical current. Binderbauer expects to take the first steps toward commercialization in a decade, if all goes well. Just a few miles from Microsoft’s headquarters outside Seattle, Helion Energy wants to fuse deuterium and helium-3 to produce energy plus hydrogen and helium-4 nuclei, but no neutrons. Pulsed magnetic fields would compress and heat the plasma to fusion temperatures for a brief instant. Like General Fusion’s machine, Helion’s fusion engine would set off bursts at the rate of one per second. And like Tri Alpha’s machine, the system would convert the energy directly into electricity. One of Helion’s fusion-fuel ingredients, helium-3, is rare on Earth. It happens to be abundant on the moon, which is why helium-3 is often cited as a justification for lunar mining schemes. Fortunately, Helion won’t have to race to the moon. The reactor is designed to synthesize its own helium-3, just as General Fusion’s machine is designed to synthesize tritium. David Kirtley, a fusion researcher and Helion CEO, says the company could demonstrate a net-gain fusion reaction within a couple of years and make fusion power marketable by 2022. Magnetized target fusion and its variants aren’t the only unorthodox technologies on the fast track. Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, based in New Jersey, is developing a device that would zap hydrogen-boron fuel with a jolt of electricity, in a process known as dense plasma focus. Other companies are working on cusp confinement, which involves trapping and squeezing ionized gas between magnetic fields. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works lab in Palmdale, Calif., is pursuing this approach to build a compact fusion reactor by 2025 that it hopes will be suitable for installation on airplanes. EMC2 Fusion Development, based in Santa Fe, N.M., tested a cusp-confinement device for the U.S. Navy in 2014 and is looking for investors to fund a larger version. Can private enterprise really do fusion cheaper and quicker than the multibillion-dollar, government-led efforts? Hard to imagine, but investors backing the efforts are risk takers. Tri Alpha has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, from backers that include Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. General Fusion has attracted $94 million in funding, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos among the investors. Last July, an investment group with connections to Canadian billionaire Jeff Skoll put money into a $10 million funding round for Helion Energy. Fellow billionaire Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal, is also a Helion investor. Even government agencies are supporting the private ventures: The U.S. Department of Energy supports low-cost approaches to fusion through ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. In 2015, ARPA-E awarded $30 million to nine alternative fusion ventures, including nearly $4 million to Helion Energy. General Fusion has benefited from a similar program in Canada. The public funding of these private endeavors raises a pointed question: If even one of the low-cost commercial strategies has a chance of working, why spend billions on the traditional big-budget programs? “When you invest, you have some blue-chip stocks, and you have some high-payoff stocks,” says Uri Shumlak, a nuclear engineer at the University of Washington whose fusion research received $4.8 million from ARPA-E. “The projects being funded by ARPA-E are high-risk, high-payoff ventures.” It all sounds like a gamble, but there’s one sure thing: As climate concerns rise and fossil fuel reserves shrink, meeting the world’s rising energy needs is a game that has to be won — even if it takes a mad-scientist lab to do it. This article appears in the February 6, 2016, issue of Science News under the headline, "Renegade Fusion." Editor’s Note: This article was updated on January 29, 2016, to correct some descriptions of Tri Alpha Energy's fusion approach.


News Article | December 31, 2015
Site: news.yahoo.com

There were some amazing, headline-inspiring scientific breakthroughs in 2015 -- some sounding like they were torn from the pages of a science fiction novel -- but not all the developments actually matched the hype they generated. Some were more conceptual and preliminary, some exaggerated, and some were spot on. Here's a review of some five the most intriguing. Printed human organs Researchers at the University of Florida made headlines in May with a new technique for using 3D printers with organic materials. One of the many challenges in printing organic tissue, like say, a replacement kidney, is maintaining the structure during its construction. Items printed out of metal or plastic have enough structural integrity to hold themselves up while they're only partially completed but organic tissue is too soft to stand alone. So Professor Thomas Angelini and his team created a way to print organic materials inside of a gel structure. The acrylic acid polymer gel acts as a support, preventing the organic material from collapsing in on itself while it's being printed. That will allow printing things like a detailed model of a patient's organ that a surgeon could practice on before conducting a real surgery. Still, there are more than a few major hurdles remaining before replaceable organs can come out of a machine. For one, the gel doesn't keep the organic tissue alive. And that means the veins, organs and other body parts produced can't actually be used in a human body just yet. "Their work is a good first step, but they haven't come even close to printing a functional tissue -- let alone an organ," says Jennifer Lewis, an expert on bio-engineering and a professor at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Sunscreen pill For years, sun worshipers have looked forward to the day when they could skip slathering themselves with messy protective creams and sprays and just take a pill. There are even items on the market today that claim to be sunscreen pills. None taken alone provide the protection of even modest sunblock creams, however. But a breakthrough from Oregon State University could change that in just a few more years. Scientists have already isolated a natural sunblocking compound called gadusol that is produced by some fish and amphibians (including rainbow trout and alligators). The OSU team managed to "grow" gadusol in the lab using yeast. "Certainly intriguing," says Adam Friedman, an associate professor at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. But there will be "many factors to consider when translating to human intake." Clinical trials on another substance, polypodium leucotomos, found gains when taken in conjunction with sunscreen use for patients with sun sensitive diseases like lupus, he says. Some other products have been tested but "none have come to fruition due to safety concerns." Truly wireless charging The dream of an all-wireless future may eventually include recharging our battery-hungry mobile devices as well. Currently, "wireless" recharging refers to placing a smartphone or watch on a charging pad -- no wires required but contact between the unit and the pad must be maintained. Several startups are promising true wireless charging, via energy waves beamed through the air. Unfortunately, most experts in the field say there's little chance the startups, which rely on converting electricity into sound waves for transmission and then back into electricity, will be able to pull off the promised feat. The problems relate to the basic physics of power transmission. The power of ultrasound broadcasts used to transmit power fade rapidly at modest distances, losing half their strength within 3 meters. And huge amounts of energy are lost converting the signals from power to ultrasound and back to power. "My gut feeling is that a system of this sort will not be very efficient and will be practical for, at best, limited applications," David Greve, professor in Carnegie Mellon's electrical and computer engineering depratment, told the IEEE Spectrum web site last month. Nuclear power for all An Australian scientist and a colleague from Sweden had a radical proposal this year to replace all fossil fuels needed to produce electricity in the world within a few decades -- enough time to actually make a difference and slow down global climate change. The catch? They wanted to follow the Swedish model of replacing coal and gas with nuclear plants. To keep costs down and speed up the transition, the pair also advocate using old-fashioned fission and water-based reactors, the kind that produce nasty waste that will have to be stored safely for thousands of years. Tihange (Belgium), 04/05/2015. A file picture dated 04 May 2015 shows a general view of the nuclear power plant in Tihange, Belgium. (Bélgica, Incendio) EFE/EPA/JULIEN WARNAND And that's not likely to get much support around the world, especially in the United States, where nuclear plants are being phased out much faster than new plants are being built. Japan and Germany, too, seem unenthusiastic about current nuclear tech. But there are some newer designs in the planning stages that could change the entire world's attitude toward nuclear power. Just in the U.S., 43 companies working on more advanced designs for nuclear reactors have raised $1.3 billion. One secretive startup, Tri Alpha Energy, released detailed data this year about gains for its fusion-based technique, called a colliding beam fusion reactor. Fusion reactors should be much safer than the current fission models and produce little waste. Where's my translator? The 1960s sci-fi show "Star Trek" imagined a technology that could translate speech from one language to another in real time, in a person's own voice. Fifty years later, the speech-to-speech translator is almost a reality, as Microsoft (MSFT) added speech-to-speech translation to its Skype Translator app. Speak in Chinese Mandarin, English, French, German, Italian or Spanish and the person you're speaking with hears it in whichever of those langauges they choose. It's not precisely Captain Kirk-level yet. There's a slight delay and the translation is not in the speaker's own voice. But the delays are amazingly small and the speech sounds rather natural, at least for short sentences.


Patent
Tri Alpha Energy | Date: 2016-03-31

Systems and methods for the conversion of energy of high-energy photons into electricity which utilize a series of materials with differing atomic charges to take advantage of the emission of a large multiplicity of electrons by a single high-energy photon via a cascade of Auger electron emissions. In one embodiment, a high-energy photon converter preferably includes a linearly layered nanometric-scaled wafer made up of layers of a first material sandwiched between layers of a second material having an atomic charge number differing from the atomic charge number of the first material. In other embodiments, the nanometric-scaled layers are configured in a tubular or shell-like configuration and/or include layers of a third insulator material.


A high performance field reversed configuration (FRC) system includes a central confinement vessel, two diametrically opposed reversed-field-theta-pinch formation sections coupled to the vessel, and two divertor chambers coupled to the formation sections. A magnetic system includes quasi-dc coils axially positioned along the FRC system components, quasi-dc mirror coils between the confinement chamber and the formation sections, and mirror plugs between the formation sections and the divertors. The formation sections include modular pulsed power formation systems enabling static and dynamic formation and acceleration of the FRCs. The FRC system further includes neutral atom beam injectors, pellet injectors, gettering systems, axial plasma guns and flux surface biasing electrodes. The beam injectors are preferably angled toward the midplane of the chamber. In operation, FRC plasma parameters including plasma thermal energy, total particle numbers, radius and trapped magnetic flux, are sustainable at or about a constant value without decay during neutral beam injection.


Patent
Tri Alpha Energy | Date: 2011-01-01

Systems and methods for the conversion of energy of high-energy photons into electricity which utilize a series of materials with differing atomic charges to take advantage of the emission of a large multiplicity of electrons by a single high-energy photon via a cascade of Auger electron emissions. In one embodiment, a high-energy photon converter preferably includes a linearly layered nanometric-scaled wafer made up of layers of a first material sandwiched between layers of a second material having an atomic charge number differing from the atomic charge number of the first material. In other embodiments, the nanometric-scaled layers are configured in a tubular or shell-like configuration and/or include layers of a third insulator material.


Patent
Tri Alpha Energy | Date: 2015-03-03

A negative ion-based neutral beam injector comprising a negative ion source, accelerator and neutralizer to produce about a 5 MW neutral beam with energy of about 0.50 to 1.0 MeV. The ions produced by the ion source are pre-accelerated before injection into a high energy accelerator by an electrostatic multi-aperture grid pre-accelerator, which is used to extract ion beams from the plasma and accelerate to some fraction of the required beam energy. The beam from the ion source passes through a pair of deflecting magnets, which enable the beam to shift off axis before entering the high energy accelerator. After acceleration to full energy, the beam enters the neutralizer where it is partially converted into a neutral beam. The remaining ion species are separated by a magnet and directed into electrostatic energy converters. The neutral beam passes through a gate valve and enters a plasma chamber.


News Article | June 3, 2015
Site: gizmodo.com

Tri Alpha Energy does not have a website. Its office in California is unmarked. But this stealth company apparently has hundreds of millions in cash. And now it has something to show for it, reports Science: The company claims it’s gotten ten times better at containing high-energy particles necessary for fusion energy. But before we rev up the hype machine, it’s important to understand Tri Alpha Energy’s achievement is a tenfold improvement to a very, very inefficient process. Fusion requires getting particles to insanely high energies and slamming them together, like in stars. The problem is how to keep those particles from destroying everything thing else. Tri Alpha figured out how to create a phenomenon for containing particles that lasts 5 milliseconds. To actually getting more energy out of fusion than you put in, though, it’ll need it to last for a second. You can do the math. What’s exciting about Tri Alpha’s announcement, however, is that it’s doing it in an entirely different way. For the past few decades, scientists have been developing doughnut-shaped “tokamak” reactors, which contain particles with powerful magnets, or using laser beams to compress minuscule pellets of fuel. But the multibillion dollar flagship projects for these two approaches, ITER and the National Ignition Facility, have both notoriously stalled. Enter Tri Alpha and field-reserved configuration. Here’s Daniel Clery of Science explaining how it works: Tri Alpha’s device relies on a plasma phenomenon called a field-reversed configuration (FRC), akin to a smoke ring of plasma. Because plasma is made of charged particles (electrons and nuclei), the swirling particles in the FRC create a magnetic field that acts to hold the ring together, potentially long enough for fusion to get going. Tri Alpha’s 23-meter-long device has at its heart a long tube with numerous ring-shaped magnets and other devices along its length. It creates a plasma smoke ring close to each end and fires them toward the middle at 250 kilometers per second. At the center they merge, converting their kinetic energy into heat to produce a high-temperature FRC. In a couple of papers published in Nature Communications and Physics of Plasmas, Tri Alpha’s scientists write how a combination of improvements, including faster ions, have gotten the FRC to last 10 times longer. It’s still a long way from fusion energy, but this may herald a new path to it.


News Article | November 14, 2016
Site: www.greentechmedia.com

GTM has charted the rise and fall of more than 150 solar startups. A few failed magnificently, but most of the others just faded away -- victims of greed, sloth, pride or any of the other deadly sins of startups. Bloo Solar falls into the latter category -- the one where investors don't perform adequate due diligence and the company goes forward with a technology based sheerly on collective self-deception. Sources close to the company claim that the startup is winding down and selling off its assets. We've reached out to CEO Larry Bawden for comment but have not yet received a response. The startup originated with IP from UC Davis based on nanostructured silicon and later aimed at building nanostructured “bristles” with cadmium telluride as the PV absorber material. More recently, the company settled on amorphous silicon as the PV absorber. Bloo claimed that "each bristle in the brush is an individual solar cell with a conductive core that converts and channels energy efficiently to a conductive backplane." According to Bloo, the technology's advantages over existing planar solar cells included more optical volume, better light trapping and minimized recombination by providing a long photon absorption path and a short carrier collection path. Bloo also claimed that the energy yield of its cell could be "two to three times higher than current technologies." That claim would serve as a red flag to anyone with a bit of solar technology experience. Bloo Solar's patent portfolio included "[m]ethods for forming nanostructures and photovoltaic cells implementing same," with an abstract citing "a photovoltaic nanostructure [that] includes an electrically conductive nanocable coupled to a first electrode, a second electrode extending along at least two sides of the nanocable, and a photovoltaically active p-n junction formed between the nanocable and the second electrode." Acadia Woods Partners was the main investor in Bloo, with about $20 million deployed over the last decade. Acadia Woods is helmed by Jeff Samberg, son of Art Samberg of Pequot Capital Management, at one time one of the world's larger hedge funds with over $15 billion under management. Art Samberg is also chairman of the board at Tri Alpha Energy, a fusion energy science project. I spoke with a half-dozen ex-employees of Bloo -- none wishing to be quoted or quoted with attribution. Some common themes emerged: frustration; wasteful spending; people were "misled" with "no path forward." There were tales of difficult firings, early employees in acrimonious relationships with management, an idiosyncratic physicist (in truth, more colorful adjectives were used), and an inept top leadership which was apparently unfamiliar with the laws of thermodynamics. From a technological standpoint, the company had to shift from its early materials experiments with cadmium telluride to a more manufacturable "meta materials" platform depositing amorphous silicon on microimprinted polymer structures. Along the way, the company acquired an expensive cluster computer to perform computational modeling to determine whether the company's "belief" in a "novel" theory of light absorption on a 3-D structure, dubbed the "volumetric effect," was real. Sources familiar with the firm said that there was improved "absorption of photons in the infrared band-edge on a 3-D structure compared to a similarly thick (or thin) planar absorber," but not the level of improvement that would lead to 2x or 3x gain in energy yield claimed by the company's leadership. Sources told GTM that the company's "volumetric effect" was not in accord with photonic theory. Technologists that worked for the firm said the real value proposition for the company was not improved efficiency, but rather the ability to use thinner absorber layers by extending the photon absorption path length and decreasing the carrier collection distance. So, is there anything to be learned from this disaster? Almost all the Bloo sources spoke of the need for investors to do better vetting of technologies, consulting with credible solar industry experts. Sources regretted their own lack of vetting in taking jobs at the company. This was deep science requiring fundamental research -- not the typical domain of venture investors. The startup was never able to attract any traditional venture capital, and when the one large investor lost interest, it was lights out.

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