The Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy (ARPA-E) recently announced a new funding stream for intermediate density plasma experiments. The funding opportunity, entitled Accelerating Low-cost Plasma Heating and Assembly (ALPHA), seeks to “develop a set of low-cost technologies in fusion drivers and plasma formation that will achieve high experimental shot rates for rapid learning, and create new low-cost paths to fusion power.” Experiments in this density range were previously funded under DoE’s High Energy Density Plasma (HEDP), but that program was cut in the 2014 fiscal year.
ARPA-E differs from other DOE funding streams. It exists to fund applied research and development directed toward the production of useful materials. Unlike other programs, it will not support basic research, without specific applications in mind.
The fusion experiments to be funded by ALPHA are different from the major research programs of laser fusion or magnetic confinement. Laser fusion seeks to create extremely high density plasmas confined for a short time, and magnetic confinement experiments like ITER trap low-density plasma for long confinement times. ALPHA experiments will focus on moderate-density plasmas confined for millionths to thousandths of a second. However, ALPHA’s technical goals and anticipated research tool development are different from the previous HEDP funding. ALPHA focuses on technologies that can achieve a high shot rate at low cost, in order to enable rapid experimentation and learning in the intermediate plasma density range. The funding opportunity announcement elaborates:
To date, the largest fusion research efforts have focused on magnetic confinement and on inertial confinement…ARPA-E pursues focused investments to develop tools for fusion approaches in the intermediate density regime. This intermediate density regime has been highlighted in recent analyses as a potential low-cost route to fusion power, and because it sits between the operating densities of pure magnetic confinement and inertial confinement, developments in this regime will complement mainline fusion programs.
The goal of this program is to address the significant technical challenges in developing low-cost, high shot rate tools capable of accessing the intermediate density regime and demonstrating that these tools provide a path to Lawson conditions and beyond after the program.