Recreating in a lab the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and other stars — which is called nuclear fusion — is a feat as complex as it sounds.
Fusion has the potential to create massive amounts of carbon-free or clean energy. So though no scientists have quite accomplished creating usable energy from fusion just yet, a handful of companies are working at it.
The machines being built by scientists to accomplish this are called reactors, and they are massively heavy, cost tens of millions of dollars and represent the culmination of decades of scientific research.
TAE Technologies, headquartered in Foothill Ranch, California, is a fusion company using a unique reactor design, and it recently reached a key milestone in the quest for usable energy from fusion. TAE Technologies shared this virtual tour of its lab to explain the potential of fusion technology.
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How to get to 50 million degrees Celsius
To re-create fusion on Earth, first, a lighter atom such as hydrogen has to be heated until it gets to the fourth state of matter, plasma. (The first three states are solid, then liquid, then gas.)
Gas must be "superheated" to create plasma, says TAE Technologies CEO Michl Binderbauer.
Then, the superheated plasma has to be sustained for a long enough amount of time and in a stable enough condition to release energy.
In April, TAE Technologies — which was founded in 1998 — announced it was able to produce stable plasma at more than 50 million degrees Celsius with its Field Reversed Configuration, or FRC, machine. The machine is nicknamed Norman, after Binderbauer's late mentor, Norman Rostoker, "one of the Popes of the field," he says.
While that milestone is important, it is not the hottest temperature generated in a fusion lab. "The Chinese and Koreans have achieved over 100 million degrees in their tokamaks [fusion machines] — a very different kind of experiment," says Andrew Holland, executive director of the Fusion Industry Association.
The video embedded below shows plasma being formed and maintained inside TAE's fusion machine.
A different kind of fusion reactor
Typically, the donut-shaped tokamak machines that Holland mentioned are used to attempt fusion. But TAE's FRC reactor is less expensive to construct and repair and its system is less complex, according to Binderbauer.
TAE's FRC machine Norman, seen in the photos and in the video embedded below, cost $150 million to construct and was built from mid-2016 to mid-2017.
It is 80 feet long and 22 feet high and weighs 60,000 pounds.
The machine works by first creating an internal vacuum. Then "we introduce a handful of particles — about a million times less dense than the air we sit in in the room — so the amount of particles in there is tiny," Binderbauer tells CNBC Make It.
In each of the ends of the machine, hydrogen gas is heated to form a plasma. The two plasmas are then slammed together in the middle portion of the machine. See that in the video clip embedded below.
Particle beam accelerators (seen in the photos below with yellow ends) hold the slammed-together plasma in place so that fusion can happen.
TAE Technologies uses of hydrogen-boron fuel, which is "the cleanest, most environmentally friendly fuel source on Earth, with no harmful primary byproducts and enough natural supply to sustain the planet for virtually 100,000 years," says Binderbauer. "As a species we would likely be extinct by our own doing before we run out of this fuel."
But using hydrogen-boron, "requires much much higher temperatures to achieve fusion, so is much more difficult," Holland says.
Getting to 50 million degrees Celsius earned TAE a $280 million infusion of money in April from investors including Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google and the Kuwait Investment Authority, as well as the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg, and Charles Schwab. In total, TAE Technologies has raised $880 million from investors.
But 50 million degrees Celsius is still not hot enough to create what is called "net energy." With the present technology, fusion usurps all the energy it creates to sustain its own reaction, leaving no net energy to power other things.
To achieve net energy, TAE will use the recent funding to build a next generation FRC, called Copernicus, a rendering of which is embedded below. It "will operate well in excess of 100 million degrees Celsius to simulate net energy production," according to an April statement from TAE.
The design of Copernicus, which looks similar to Norman, is still being finalized.
The future of fusion
"Our game plan, the one we have been executing to, is to bring a demonstration power plant online by the late part of the '20s, so then you go into commercialization," Binderbauer says.
But one of the common criticisms of fusion is that it is going to take too long to be realized to be helpful with climate change.
"Fusion has great potential to contribute to a clean energy future," says Jonathan Cobb, senior analyst at the World Nuclear Association. But even if net energy is achieved in the 2020s, "widespread deployment of fusion is someway off."
To be precise, there are six years and eight months as of April 30 until the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere causes global warming of the planet which exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, the preferred limit of global warming compared to pre-industrial levels as agreed upon by The Paris Agreement.
Binderbauer agrees, the time until fusion can be usable is "significant." But he believes fusion is still important. "Over the next 25 years we're going to double power demand in the world," he says. "So the question is how is that going to get generated?"
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