Prospects for fusion becoming real?
- Jan 14, 2022 12:59 am GMT
.. or just same old same old?
Most readers here are likely familiar with the quip to the effect that “controlled fusion is the energy source of the future – and always will be.” For the past 60 years, the date by which we can expect the arrival of practical fusion energy, as projected by researchers in the field, has remained at a relatively constant 20 to 30 years in the future from when the projection was made. Given that track record, skepticism about any claims that practical fusion energy may now be “just around the corner” are understandable. And likely correct. “This time is different” isn't a phrase that should ever inspire confidence! Still …
Sometimes there is a wolf
In July of last year, I posted a link and commented about a PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) feature news article titled Small-scale fusion tackles energy, space applications. The article was primarily about the efforts of a group at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory to develop an alternative to the standard tokamak approach for plasma confinement. Known as the “field-reversed configuration (FRC)”, the approach looked like it might be workable at a much smaller size and lower mass than the tokamak approach. The Princeton group was investigating it specifically for advanced spacecraft propulsion.
Almost as a footnote, the article mentioned that a number of other groups were also looking into FRC-based devices. One of those was Helion Energy, a startup company headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Around the time that the PNAS article was published, Helion had just announced the attainment of 100 million degree plasma temperatures in their then-current prototype device. That temperature is sufficient to sustain a high yield of fusion in the D-3He fuel mix that their design employs. Not too long after that – and presumably related – Forbes reported that Helion had announced the close of a $500 million Series E funding round.
After such a major fundraising, I wouldn’t expect a startup to reappear on the news radar right away. They’d be quietly beavering away, working on the next iteration of product development that the funding had enabled. So in November, I was surprised by an article on TechCrunch headlined Helion secures $2.2B to commercialize fusion energy. As it turned out, it wasn’t actually fresh news. The already-large $500M series E funding had included provision for an additional $1.7B, conditional on milestones. Based on the TechCrunch article and more detailed reporting on New Atlas, it would appear that Helion has been progressing on the stipulated milestones.
Prospects for the future?
I must emphasize that I’m not a professional business analyst, and would not be taking a position on Helion Energy as an investment, even if they were publicly traded – which they’re not. I have not interviewed anyone at the company, nor exercised the kind of due diligence that would be essential for an informed assessment of the company’s prospects. That said, Helion’s story makes sense to me from a technical standpoint. I’m now “cautiously optimistic” about what their technology might mean for a clean energy future.
Helion’s approach is unique. It’s a pulsed fusion approach that does not involve the rapid implosion of target pellets a’la Lawrence Livermore’s inertial confinement experiments. It involves magnetic confinement of a super-hot plasma, but the confinement is fleeting (order of milliseconds). No time for plasma instabilities to become a problem. It’s a hybrid between inertial and magnetic confinement schemes which manages to sidestep the most difficult challenges that either of those “mainstream” approaches face. What’s left are relatively straightforward engineering challenges. They’re matters of ultra-precise timing and shaping of intense current pulses. Recent advances in power electronics and fiber optic controls provide the technological foundation for Helion’s approach to (apparently) work.
None of that will make a lot of sense to readers who aren’t already pretty well steeped in fusion device science and the issues I’m alluding to. In fact, I’m sounding to myself a bit like a certain type of con artist, tossing around technical jargon to impress the marks. I hate that. So I think I’ll shut up. But for those interested, Helion’s website has a nifty scroll-through animation that gives a much clearer overview than I can present here of how their device actually operates.
In the immortal words of Arte Johnson (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in), “very interesting”.
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