Science magazine has an exclusive report on a fusion group that could change everything. They’ve got a reactor that works better than any power source we’ve seen yet:
A privately funded company called Tri Alpha Energy has built a machine that forms a ball of superheated gas—at about 10 million degrees Celsius—and holds it steady for 5 milliseconds without decaying away. That may seem a mere blink of an eye, but it is far longer than other efforts with the technique and shows for the first time that it is possible to hold the gas in a steady state—the researchers stopped only when their machine ran out of juice.
“They’ve succeeded finally in achieving a lifetime limited only by the power available to the system,” says particle physicist Burton Richter of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who sits on a board of advisers to Tri Alpha.
…[T]he main efforts in this field are huge government-funded projects such as the $20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in France by an international collaboration, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s $4 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California. But the burgeoning cost and complexity of such projects are causing many to doubt they will ever produce plants that can generate energy at an affordable cost.
Tri Alpha’s and similar efforts take a different approach, which promises simpler, cheaper machines that can be developed more quickly. Importantly, the Tri Alpha machine may be able to operate with a different fuel than most other fusion reactors. This fuel—a mix of hydrogen and boron—is harder to react, but Tri Alpha researchers say it avoids many of the problems likely to confront conventional fusion power plants.
Like other fusion techniques, Tri Alpha’s device aims to confine a gas so hot that its atoms are stripped of electrons, producing a roiling mixture of electrons and ions known as plasma. If the ions collide with enough force, they fuse, converting some of their mass into energy, but this requires temperatures of at least 100 million degrees Celsius with conventional fuel, hot enough to melt any container. So the first challenge for reactor designers is how to confine the plasma without touching it. Facilities like the NIF rapidly implode the plasma, relying on its inward inertia to hold it long enough for a burst of fusion reactions. The ITER, in contrast, holds the plasma steady with powerful magnetic fields inside a doughnut-shaped chamber known as a tokamak. Some of the field is provided by a complex network of superconducting magnets, the rest by the plasma itself flowing around the ring like an electric current.
Tri Alpha’s machine also produces a doughnut of plasma, but in it the flow of particles in the plasma produces all of the magnetic field holding the plasma together. This approach, known as a field-reversed configuration (FRC), has been known since the 1960s. But despite decades of work, researchers could get the blobs of plasma to last only about 0.3 milliseconds before they broke up or melted away. In 1997, the Canadian-born physicist Norman Rostoker of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues proposed a new approach. The following year, they set up Tri Alpha, now based in an unremarkable—and unlabeled—industrial unit here. Building up from tabletop devices, by last year the company was employing 150 people and was working with C-2, a 23-meter-long tube ringed by magnets and bristling with control devices, diagnostic instruments, and particle beam generators. The machine forms two smoke rings of plasma, one near each end, by a proprietary process and fires them toward the middle at nearly a million kilometers per hour. At the center they merge into a bigger FRC, transforming their kinetic energy into heat.
Full humblebrag disclosure: I know one of the researchers behind this, and he’s been working on it for decades. (His son’s a longtime friend and listed in the Honorary Troubadours, too, because rock.) I’m not sure “secretive” is as accurate as “low-key” – not fans of the splashy headlines and the PR problems that come with some kinds of science reporting.
They’re just building tabletop devices to create fusion reactions, right?
There’s video at the link.