Jan 28

Look inside this lab where scientists are recreating the energy of the sun to produce nearly unlimited clean energy

Apr 30, 2021
The TAE Technologies fusion machine, Norman, in the company’s lab in Foothill Ranch, California. Norman was built from the middle of 2016 to mid-2017 and cost $150 million to build. It is 22 feet high, 80 feet long and weighs 60,000 pounds.
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.
Take a look.
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.
“As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid,” Binderbauer said in a written statement announcing the company’s latest funding raise.
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.”
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