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TAE Technologies hits fusion milestone, attracting $280m funding

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TAE Technologies, a California-based company aiming to generate electricity from nuclear fusion, has reached a milestone in its research efforts – producing stable plasma at 50,000,000°C – and has raised $280m in additional funding.

TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy) was founded in 1998 and has long maintained a low public profile. However, it regularly shares updates on its results in academic journals and scientific conferences.

Put very simply, commercial nuclear fusion requires a platform for confining plasma at a minimum temperature (three billion Celsius) for a minimum period of time (multiple milliseconds) to enable fusion reactions: the “hot enough/long enough” threshold.

The TAE Technologies design does not confine plasma using external magnetic field; instead, it confines the plasma on closed magnetic field lines without central penetration. The plasma is held in a rotating, self-stable doughnut shape.

Using this approach, TAE produced a stable plasma at 50,000,000°C within a compact reactor (called 'Norman'), with this performance repeated over hundreds of testing cycles. The company has conducted over 25,000 fully integrated fusion reactor core experiments. The experiments were optimised with the most sophisticated computing processes available, including machine learning from a collaboration with Google.

The success confirms a unique and promising benefit of TAE’s technology: a positive relationship between plasma confinement and reactor temperature. This approach may allow for scaling to the conditions necessary for an economically viable fusion plant. TAE suggests that, given these results, the company could be in a position to build a commercial fusion power plant by 2030.

“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker. Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorising that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase,” said Michl Binderbauer, TAE's CEO.

“We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behaviour with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically. 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 modernising the entire energy grid.”

The milestone could entrench investor confidence in the prospect of commercially viable nuclear fusion, long considered a Holy Grail of green energy. The additional $280m investment which the company has secured means that TAE has now reached over $880m in funding from a range of investors, including Google and the Wellcome Trust. The company was previously valued at $2.6bn in May 2019.

TAE said that the fresh funding will be mainly used on non-fusion related work (such as commercialisation of its power management technology for EV charging) and a new reactor scale facility called 'Copernicus'. This aims to operate in excess of 100,000,000°C in order to simulate net energy production from the conventional deuterium-tritium fuel cycle.

This could provide the opportunity to license its deuterium-tritium fusion technology, while scaling to its goal of utilising advanced fuels via the hydrogen-boron (also known as proton-boron or p-B11) fuel cycle.

TAE ultimately aims to deliver carbon-free baseload energy via the p-B11 fuel cycle. This cycle begins with a proton striking a boron-11 nucleus, creating a resonance in carbon-12. This then decays by emitting a high-energy alpha particle (a helium nucleus), leaving an excited beryllium-8 nucleus, which finally decays into two low-energy alpha particles.

This cycle makes use of abundant materials and does not produce fast neutrons or radioactive waste. TAE claims that the products of the reaction should release vast amounts of energy.

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