A secretive start-up claims to have made a breakthrough in creating fusion power, a limitless source of energy.
Tri Alpha Energy says it’s developed a machine that can hold hot plasma steady at 10 million°C (18 million°F) for five milliseconds.
If its claims are true, it offers proof that fusion power could someday be a reality, ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The particular type of fusion power Tri Alpha is working on is based on heating hydrogen atoms to temperatures to 3 billion°C – which is hotter than the surface of the sun.
The heat creates plasma that has a mixture of electrons and ions. When ions in a plasma collide, they fuse together to form new atoms and release huge amounts of energy.
It’s a relatively simple concept, but the trick is in heating the gas to such a high temperature. Currently no known material can hold this heat.
Over the years, scientist have come up with two main methods to overcome this; cause an implosion that occurs rapidly, or use a magnetic field.
Tri Alpha Energy is using the latter option, but says it has made its breakthrough with an unusual reactor design — a long, tube that collides pairs of plasma donuts to produce heat.
According to a detailed report in Science, the team has placed magnets around a cigar shaped configuration that allows for firing angled plasma beams at one another.
The plasma that forms from its hydrogen and boron sample is then stabilised with beams of high-energy particles.
‘Until you learn to control and tame [the hot gas], it’s never going to work. In that regard, it’s a big deal. They seem to have found a way to tame it,’ Jaeyoung Park, head of the rival fusion start-up Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation in San Diego told Science.
Tri Alpha is keeping many details about its project under wraps; the Los Angeles firm protects its trade secrets so tightly that it doesn’t even have a website.
But Science has confirmed that the company now plans to create a fusion tube that boasts even more power and that can reach hotter temperatures for longer periods of time.
Using this approach, the scientists were able to reportedly heat the gas up to 10 million °CCand only stopped the machine because they ran out of fuel.
This, however, is still short of the 3 billion °C temperature needed to achieve a fusion reaction.
The team now plans to improve its machine, dubbed C-2U, to achieve a ten-fold increase in temperature.
Tri Alpha’s annoucement follows news by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also claim to have come up with a commercially viable fusion reactor design.
Named ARC, the planned reactor will be a tokamak – or donut-shaped – system and would generate the same amount of energy as much larger designs.
The ARC reactor is slightly different to other tokamak systems in that it uses new commercially available superconductors made of rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tapes.
The stronger magnetic fields generated by these coils are able to better contain superhot plasma, allowing the reactor to be smaller, cheaper and quicker to build.
‘Any increase in the magnetic field gives you a huge win,’ said Brandon Sorbom, a MIT student working on the project.
Critics are skeptical whether any of these designs will prove a commercial reality.
It’s an old joke that scientists keep hearing: Practical nuclear fusion power plants are just 30 years away – and always will be.
Whether ITER, MIT and Tri Alpha Energy can deliver on their promises, remains to be seen.