Nuclear fusion has long felt like decades away. Today, the timeline accelerates.
TAE Technologies, the world’s largest private fusion company, has announced it will have a commercially viable nuclear fusion power plant by 2030, which puts it years—or even decades—ahead of other fusion technology companies.
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The California-based company has raised $880 million in funding for its hydrogen-boron reactor. This reactor isn’t a traditional tokamak or stellarator; instead, it uses a confined particle acceleration mechanism that produces and confines plasma.
All fusion technology has plasma, which mimics the extreme reactions that power all the stars—it’s what we’re emulating when we make fusion energy experiments. “Plasma is an oozy substance; the challenge of containing it is akin to holding Jell-O together using rubber bands,” TAE says on its website.
What is TAE doing differently than the industry’s perhaps higher-profile projects, like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)? TAE’s tech, which is called advanced beam-driven field-reversed configuration (FRC), uses non-radioactive hydrogen-boron to generate plasma in a carefully contained area. The tech can also work for hydrogen isotope fuels like deuterium-tritium, TAE says. The particle-accelerating beam heats the molecules to plasma status, then the field-reversed configuration keeps it all together.
The entire system has a totally different shape and form factor than tokamaks and stellarators. In fact, it’s closer to medical applications, like cancer-zapping proton beams you may have seen pop up at places like Cancer Treatment Centers of America and other hospitals. That’s because the targeted beam can work in the body the same way it works to heat and disrupt the particulate inside TAE’s reactor.
TAE’s current working reactor is nicknamed Norman, after the scientist who cofounded TAE in 1998. The reactor is 80 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 60,000 pounds. This still makes it far smaller than almost any existing nuclear power plant reactor, on par with something like a small modular reactor.
Today, TAE has announced that Norman has consistently reached the 50 million degrees Celsius required to become a sustaining plasma reactor.
There are two colloquial terms for what fusion net energy requires: “hot enough” and “long enough” to end up fruitfully producing energy. TAE says Norman has been running over 600 experiments each month, which is 20 tests each day or about 30 each weekday—reaching the plasma “ignition,” or self sustaining for energy, temperature each time.
This means 6 years after TAE began to reach “long enough,” Norman has finally reached “hot enough” frequently enough that it can begin to scale up for commercial power plants. And this is why the company says it feels it can build that kind of power plant by the end of the decade in 2030.
With the central fusion technology well in hand, there’s still a lot of work to get a fusion plant off (and on) the ground in reality. Everything about the whole structure must be designed, studied, tested, and regulated by the government. Still, TAE is confident about the 2030 time frame because of the proliferation of tools and knowledge in recent years.
“These tools include expanded scientific knowledge about plasma behavior, artificial intelligence, machine learning, faster electronics, magnets, improved diagnostics, shorter latency feedback loops, materials science, vacuum technology, power electronics—the list goes on,” the company says. “TAE expects this timeframe to be by the end of the decade.”