Monday, June 29, 2015

Tri-Alpha Energy Attempting to Create "Tri-Alpha" Particles via Fusion Reactions

          By Brian Orlotti

Tri-Alpha Energy Inc (TAE), a secretive and enigmatic Foothill Ranch, California based firm working to develop non-traditional fusion power, has published two papers that shed light on its latest progress.

Artists conception of the TAE colliding beam reactor and support equipment. As outlined in the October 9th, 2013 Alternative Energy Now post on "Tri Alpha Energy; Secretive Clean Fusion Power," the design uses boron-11 and protons from hydrogen nuclei to cause fusion to carbon-12, thence breaking up to three helium-4 nuclei (the three "tri-alpha particles") while producing little to no neutrons and therefore little to no significant radioactive products. Graphic c/o Alternative Energy Action Now.

As outlined in the June 2nd, 2015 article, "Mystery company blazes a trail in fusion energy," the papers revealed that its device, dubbed the colliding beam fusion reactor, has shown a "10-fold improvement in its ability to contain the hot particles needed for fusion over earlier devices at U.S. universities and national labs."

TAE was founded in 1998 by plasma physicists Norman Rostoker (an 86 year old Ontario born physics professor at the University of California, Irvine) and Hendrik J. Monkhorst (of the University of Florida) as a spin-off of their scientific work. TAE, in contrast to other alternative fusion power startups like Burnaby, BC based General Fusion (last profiled in the May 25th, 2015 post "Three Small Fusion Companies Approaching a Critical Funding Mass") and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, has kept a very low profile.

The company has no website and had published little until last month. However, as of 2014, TAE is reported to have over 150 employees and has raised over $140 million USD in capital. The company's investors include Goldman Sachs and venture capital firms like Vulcan Inc (founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Venrock (founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller), and Richard Kramlich's New Enterprise Associates.

Notably, TAE is also funded by Rusnano, a Russian Government-owned company focused on the development and commercialization of nanotechnology. Rusnano CEO Anatoly Chubais sits on the TAE board of directors.

TAE's device, called the colliding beam fusion reactor (CBFR), relies on a phenomenon called a field-reversed configuration (FRC) (essentially a smoke ring of plasma). The CBFR is a 23m long tube with numerous ring-shaped magnets and other devices along its length. It creates an FRC at both ends and fires them toward the middle at 250 kilometers per second. At the center they merge into a large vortex, converting their kinetic energy into heat to produce a high-temperature FRC. Because this FRC is made of swirling charged particles (i.e. electrons and nuclei), it creates a magnetic field that acts to hold the FRC together long enough to trigger nuclear fusion.

In May, TAE shed more light on their process when they published two papers in the science journals "Physics of Plasmas" and "Nature Communications," which revealed that the CBFR gained a factor-of-10 improvement (5ms) in the stability of the FRC by firing ion beams into the plasma. The ion beams both harden the plasma against instability and suppress turbulence that allows heat to escape.

To achieve a net energy gain, i.e. getting more energy out of a fusion reaction than being put into it, researchers will have to make FRCs last for at least one second. To this end, TAE researchers are already working on an upgraded reactor, with more powerful ion beams in a different orientation.

Brian Orlotti.
And the fruits of these efforts are likely years away.

With TAE racing with other firms to commercialize fusion power, the pressure to innovate has never been greater. Such pressure will bring this world changing technology to market faster, ultimately providing the greatest benefit to the public and the planet. 

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. But as they say: "Fusion power is 20 years away. Always has been, always will be." We'll have warp drive before we'll have successful commercial fusion power. The grid as we know it will be obsolete by then, in any event. Oh, and let's not forget the founder is 86 years old. He should be investing in biotech.


Support our Patreon Page