These reactors could be scaled up to bring this experimental form of energy to the grid.
The goal of nuclear fusion research is to recreate the processes inside the sun, where intense heat and pressure combine to create plasma, in which atomic nuclei fuse together to release energy. Much of the effort in this field has focused on the use of complex magnetic fields to suspend these streams of plasma inside like doughnuts or twisted toroid reactors that would be the name of the game for ITER, the world’s largest fusion reactor It will be operational after this decade.
Z-pinch, while proposing a very different path forward, may ultimately prove to be cheaper and more efficient. That’s because instead of a complex network of expensive magnetic coils and expensive shielding materials protecting them, Z-pinch systems rely on electromagnetic fields generated in the plasma itself. This pins the plasma inside a relatively short column and “clamps” it until it becomes hot and dense enough for fusion to occur.
In 2019, a team of scientists at the University of Washington came up with a solution to the instability problem. It is understood that these issues have plagued Z-pinch technology since the beginning of the 1950s. At the time, the group demonstrated a way to smooth the plasma flow using shear axial flow, known from fluid mechanics, which could help prevent the bumps and twists that have historically caused them to collapse.
At the same time, Uri Shumlak, one of the authors of the study, has been seeking to use this shear axial flow technology to make Z-pinch fusion technology a reality, and to do this, he co-founded Zap Energy in 2017. Last week, the company achieved a key milestone in its journey — creating the first plasma in its prototype reactor, called FuZE-Q.
“Z-pinches have long been an attractive way to achieve nuclear fusion, but for many years researchers believed that the plasma instability of Z-pinches was an insurmountable problem,” said Shumlak, Zap Energy’s chief scientific officer. challenges. We have shown through simulations and experiments that shear flow can stabilize fusion plasmas, and that this stabilization should be scaled to a commercially viable scale. Since this technology came out of the lab, the Zap Energy team has achieved rapid Progress, especially the recent growth of the team and investment.”
The team has previously demonstrated plasmas at 500 kiloamperes (kA), the highest current their previous prototype reactors could handle. But the higher the current, the higher the temperature and density of the plasma, and with this in mind, the next-generation FuZE-Q is designed to handle 650kA of current. The team’s scientific modeling suggests that this is the point at which break-even will occur, where the energy coming out of the device is greater than what is required to operate it, or Q=1.
“FuZE-Q is the fourth-generation Z-pinch device we’ve built, and certainly the most ambitious,” said Zap Energy CTO Brian A. Nelson. “We designed it to be versatile, resilient and adjustable. , which will be critical as we increase current, temperature and density.”
The Zap Energy team just closed a $160 million Series C funding round that will further its efforts to bring a form of fusion energy to market. Without the need for expensive magnets or high-power lasers like other methods, the company envisions doing this with mass-manufactured reactors small enough to fit in a garage. These modular devices can be deployed in remote communities to power them, or combined and scaled up to power entire cities.
Benj Conway, president of Zap Energy, said: “To be a practical energy source, we need to go well beyond Q=1, but if you want fusion to get into the grid in time to have an impact on Earth, then fast on a small, cheap platform. The ability to iterate is absolutely critical. We can design, build and test systems much faster than other methods, and we’re working in parallel on the technologies we’ll need on the other side of the breakeven.”