A privately funded company has successfully kept a ball of superheated gas stable for a record time, 5 milliseconds, putting them closer to producing fusion power.
“They’ve succeeded finally in achieving a lifetime limited only by the power available to the system,” says particle physicist Burton Richter of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who sits on a board of advisers to Tri Alpha. If the company’s scientists can scale the technique up to longer times and higher temperatures, they will reach a stage at which atomic nuclei in the gas collide forcefully enough to fuse together, releasing energy.
Although other startup companies are also trying to achieve fusion using similar methods, the main efforts in this field are huge government-funded projects such as the $20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in France by an international collaboration, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s $4 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California. But the burgeoning cost and complexity of such projects are causing many to doubt they will ever produce plants that can generate energy at an affordable cost.
Tri Alpha’s and similar efforts take a different approach, which promises simpler, cheaper machines that can be developed more quickly. Importantly, the Tri Alpha machine may be able to operate with a different fuel than most other fusion reactors. This fuel—a mix of hydrogen and boron—is harder to react, but Tri Alpha researchers say it avoids many of the problems likely to confront conventional fusion power plants. “They are where they are because people are able to believe they can get a [hydrogen-boron] reactor to work,” says plasma physicist David Hammer of Cornell University, also a Tri Alpha adviser.
The article does not say how much this success cost the privately-funded Tri Alpha, but it certainly wasn’t in the billions of dollars. Yet, it appears that in less than a decade they have accomplished more than all these big government-funded projects have in the past half century, and for less money.
Does that story sound familiar?