September 2, 2020
The funding moves us closer to initial commercialization for cost-competitive fusion energy.
A&A’s two labs for advancing nuclear fusion research – the HIT Lab and the ZaP Lab – have recently received a combined $3.5M to advance two different strategies for compact, cost-effective fusion energy. The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program is dedicating $2.5M to these projects. DOE’s interest in fusion is that a commercially-viable nuclear fusion breakthrough promises US energy security with no carbon emissions and no long-lived waste like current fission-based nuclear energy.
Though A&A’s approaches through a spheromak in the HIT Lab and a Z-pinch in the ZaP Lab can lead to cost-competitive commercialization, further advances are needed. Fusion energy, the power source of the sun, is, to say the least, difficult to achieve. Plasmas need to reach temperatures over 100 million degrees Celsius, which makes confining and stabilizing them extremely challenging. Plasmas cool down quickly unless continuously heated and must be extremely well insulated to maintain fusion conditions. Both strategies use magnets to confine and insulate the plasmas and keep them from touching the walls of the reactor.
In addition, plasmas need to be formed in specific shapes to stably undergo sustained fusion. Each lab’s strategy involves a different shape for the magnetic fields and confined plasma. The HIT Lab takes advantage of the natural property of plasmas to self-organize and uses Imposed-Dynamo Current Drive to keep it going. In contrast, the ZaP Lab forms and compresses plasma in a 50-cm long column, the Z-pinch, with plasma flowing along its length, which, in turn, stabilizes it – a technique developed by A&A Professor Uri Shumlak.
In addition to the DOE funding, the HIT Lab received an additional $1M in the gift of a set of switching power amplifiers from Eagle Harbor Technologies. The HIT Lab’s Lead Scientist Christopher Hansen explains, “Our work involves a lot of power – we’re talking 10-20 megawatts – that needs to be released very precisely on microsecond timescales in order to sustain the plasma in a controlled way. We have partnered with Eagle Harbor for many years on their development of precision high-power systems like these that benefit not only our lab but fusion labs around the world. The donation of these prototypes is a major enhancement of our lab.”
Shumlak says of this funding, “These investments in our fusion labs are a great testament that we are leading the charge to a more sustainable energy future here at the UW. It’s a really exciting time to be on the cusp of such important breakthroughs.”
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