Sci-tech: Tri-Alpha Fusion opens up

Tri-Alpha Fusion, a spin-off from the plasma fusion program at the University of California at Irvine, has been working for more than 15 years on an innovative design for a nuclear fusion power system. The company has raised over $140M in investment from venture capital firms and notables such as Paul Allen. However, except for occasional science publications, it has been very secretive about its progress and plans.

After years of research and development, including development of multiple variations of C-2-style devices, TAE demonstrated sustained stable plasma performance in the C-2U device in June 2015, based on the use of neutral beams and electrical control of the boundary layer. Credits TAE.
This week the company, which is based in California, opened the website with background info and goals for the company along with videos, images, and graphics.

The C-2U machine is the world’s largest compact toroid (CT) device. At 20 meters in length, a diameter up to 1.4 meters, and with hundreds of ports, the device routinely achieves vacuum pressures nearly 1 trillionth of atmospheric pressure. Magnetic fields with strengths up to 3.5 Tesla guide and confine plasma, while pulsed power systems deliver approximately 1 megajoule of energy in microseconds, forming and accelerating CTs to 600,000 miles per hour. Credits TAE.
Tri-Alpha is aiming to produce energy with a proton-Boron fusion reaction, which does not produce neutrons.  This requires much higher temperatures and density than with, for example, tritium-deuterium, the fuel planned for the popular Tokamak fusion approach. However, all the complications of dealing with neutrons, such as making the structural materials radioactive, are avoided. Also, extraction of useful energy should be much easier.

Here is the “corporate video”:

TAE says that in June of this year it

demonstrated a significant breakthrough in addressing “long enough,” the most fundamental scientific challenge:  the company delivered sustained plasma performance in its C-2U machine. This milestone is indicative of indefinite plasma life, limited only by the constraints of current hardware and not by underlying physics. We believe this is a first for a compact, commercially competitive fusion technology.

They sound confident that they now have the basics necessary to produce commercial power:

TAE is determined to deliver clean fusion energy technology that can provide sustainable, commercially competitive base load power and help achieve global energy independence. We are now confident we have sufficient science and engineering understanding to accomplish our goal.

However, they need to work through at least one more iteration in the machine design before they can start developing a practical power generator:

TAE is next addressing the “hot enough” challenge. Both sophisticated modeling and actual performance data already indicate that the TAE plasma will perform better and better at higher and higher temperatures (“scaling law”). The company is currently designing new experiments and hardware (called C-2W) to validate this scaling law over the next three to four years.

TAE also has started to engage with utility and industrial partners to jointly develop a commercialization plan to license its technology. The key aspects of this plan are to determine the regulatory framework and demonstrate technology readiness. It is TAE’s vision to move as fast as possible toward a fusion-based power generation capability.

Here is a video outlining the physics of the system:

Update: I’ll note that the Univ. of Washington spin-off companies Helion Energy and MSNW LLC, both led by Dr. John Slough, a professor at UW, are using a similar FRC (Field Reverse Configuration) approach to both fusion power and fusion propulsion. These companies have less funding than TAE but still might make it a race with the financing that they do have.