In a small industrial park near Los Angeles and San Diego, one company claims to have hit a milestone in developing new technology for generating power from nuclear fusion.
The 20-year-old fusion energy technology developer TAE Technologiesof the decade, thanks to its newfound ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures over 50 million degrees (nearly twice as hot as the sun).
The promise of fusion energy, a near-limitless energy source with few emissions and no carbon footprint, has been tenhumanity first harnessed the power of nuclear energy. But a slew of companies — including TAE, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and a host of others across and worldwide — are making rapid advancements to bring the technology from the realm of science fiction into the real world.
For TAE Technologies, the achievement validates the life’s work of Norman Rostoker, one of the company’s co-founders who had devoted his life to fusion energy research and died before he could see the company he helped create reach its latest milestone.
“This is a gratifying milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” said TAE’s current chief executive officer, Michl Binderbauer, in a statement announcing the company’s achievement. “Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a specific plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase.
We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a robust validation of our work over the last three decades and a critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”
Rostoker’s legacy, called “Norman.” In the last 18 months, that technology has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching over 50 million degrees in several hundred test cycles.
Six years ago, the company had proved that its reactorplasma indefinitely — meaning that once the switch is flipped on a reaction, that fusion reaction can continue indefinitely. The company said it has achieved the necessary temperatures to make its reactors commercially viable.
With these milestones behind it, TAE raised an additional $280 million in financing, bringing its total up to $880 million and making it one of the world’s best-financed privateendeavors.
“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” Binderbauer said. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid.”
The company, and won’t for the foreseeable future. According to Binderbauer, the company’s next goal is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary for making energy from a fusion reaction.
“The energy is super tiny. It’s immaterial. It’s a needle in the haystack,” Binderbauer said. “In terms of its energy discernability, we can use it for diagnostics.”
Follow the sun
TAE Technologies took $150 million and five iterations to reach Norman, its national laboratory-scale fusion device. The company said it conducted over 25,000 fully integrated fusion reactor core experiments, optimized usingand processing power from the Department of Energy’s INCITE program, which leverages exascale-level computing, TAE Technologies said.
The new machine was first fired up in the summer of 2017. Before it could even be constructed, TAE Technologies went through a decade of experimentation to even begin approaching the construction of a physical prototype. By 2008, the first construction began on integrated experiments to make a plasma core and infuse it with energetic particles.
The feeder technology and beams alone cost $100 million, Binderbauer said. Then the company needed to develop other technologies like vacuum conditioning. Power control mechanisms must also be implemented to ensure the company’s 3-megawatt power supply can be stored in enough containment systems to power a 750-megawatt energy reaction.
Finally, machine learning capabilities, and compute power from the Department of Energy had to be harnessed to manage computations that could take the theorems that defined Rostoker’s life’s work and prove that they could be made real.
“By the time Norman became an operating machine, we had four generations of devices preceding it. Of those, there were two fully integrated ones and two generations of incremental machines that could do some but not all of it.”
Fusion energy’s burning problems
While fusion has a lot of promise as a zero-carbon energy source, it’s not without some severe limitations, as Daniel Jassby, the former principal physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, noted in a 2017 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article.
Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium responses.
An energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect one. Still, it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. These neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation.
In addition, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible—as assumed here—they would share some other serious problems plaguing fission reactors, including tritium release, daunting coolant demands, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks unique to fusion devices: fuel (tritium) that is not found in nature and must be replenished by the reactor itself and unavoidable on-site power drains that drastically reduce the electric power available for sale.
According to a spokesperson for the firm, TAE Technologies is aware of the problems, and the company has noted the issues Jassby raised in its. “All the callouts to tritium is exactly why TAE has been focused on pB-11 as its feedstock from the very beginning (early 90s). TAE will reach D-T conditions as a natural stepping stone to pB-11 cause it cooks at ‘only’ 100Mc, whereas PB-11 is upwards of 1Mc,” the spokesperson wrote in response.
“It would seem like a much harder accomplishment to then scale to 1M, but what this milestone proves is the ‘Scaling law’ for the kind of fusion TAE is generating — in an FRC (the linear design of “Norman”, unlike the donut Tokamaks) the hotter the plasma, the more stable it becomes. It’s the opposite of a [Tokamak].
The milestone gives them scientific confidence they can increase temps beyond DT to pB11 and realize fusion with boron — cheap, aneutronic, abundant — the ideal terrestrial feedstock (let’s not get into mining the moon for helium-3!).” As for power concerns, the TAE fusion reactor can convert a 2MW grid feed into 750MW shots on the machine without taking down Orange County’s grid (and needing to prove it to SCE) and scale power demand microseconds to mold and course-correct plasmas in real-time, the spokesperson wrote.
TAE will spin off its powerfocused on peak shaving, energy storage, and battery management on the grid and in electric vehicles.
A “safer” fusion technology?
The Hydrogen-Boron, or p-B11, fuel cycle is, according to the company, the most abundant fuel source on earth and will be the ultimate feedstock for TAE Technologies’ reactor, according to the company. But initially, like most other companies currently developing fusion technologies, TAE will be working with Deuterium-Tritium as its fuel source.
The demonstration facility “Copernicus,” built using some of the new capital the company has announced raising, will start on the DT fuel cycle and eventually make the switch. Over time, TAE hopes to license the DT technology while building up to its ultimate goal.
Funding the company’s “money by milestone” approach are some of the world’s wealthiest families, firms, and companies. All backers are Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google, and the Kuwait Investment Authority. So too, are the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg, and Charles Schwab.
“TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs,” said Addison Fischer, TAE board director, and longtime investor involved with conservation and environmental issues for decades. Fischer also founded VeriSign, a pioneer in defining and implementing security technology underlying commerce. “TAE’s most recent funding in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”