On July 10, 2017, Tri-Alpha Energy (TAE), a nuclear fusion energy start-up based in Foothill Ranch, California, achieved the first plasma in its fifth and newest reactor, Norman. TAE is the world’s largest private fusion company and has worked towards commercial nuclear power for the past 20 years. The new reactor’s first plasma represents a major step forward after the company reached at-will plasma sustainment in June 2015. Plasma is the state of matter in which particles are kept under intense heat and pressure which allows atoms to fuse together and release energy.
Norman, which can operate at much higher temperatures than TAE’s previous reactors, helps prove the scalability of TAE’s fusion technology. TAE enters an important stage in its development as it conducts tests to sustain plasma for longer periods of time and at higher temperatures, both of which will be crucial for commercial-scale fusion energy. TAE claims Norman can operate in the range of 50 – 70 million degrees centigrade – around the temperature of the Sun’s core – while TAE claims its commercial-grade fusion energy will require temperatures closer to one billion degrees centigrade. The new reactor plans to show that plasma physics holds at higher temperatures – which will be essential for conducting commercial nuclear fusion.
Tri-Alpha plans to use a unique hydrogen-boron fusion technology that works to generate safe and clean energy while minimizing radiation. The reactor uses a field-reverse conversion magnetic field in conjunction with neutral beam injection to contain plasma in a vessel. Norman can contain five times as much plasma as previous reactors within the same sized facility. The high-powered magnetic fields and lasers needed to sustain plasma quickly consume a 750-megawatt burst of power. The reactor’s energy requirements are greater than their energy generating ability which prevents commercial viability.
The next stage of TAE’s development needs greater investment in R&D to improve scalability. Innovation will require superconducting magnets along with improved control and analysis technologies which are being developed in parallel with reactor technologies. The company also needs financing for the costs of building the next generation of reactor.
A representative of Tri-Alpha Energy attended an event hosted by the American Security Project in December 2015 titled “What’s Next in Fusion Technology.” During the event, they discussed the importance of research in scalability in fusion energy and the minimal risk of a fusion reactor due to the benign nature of hydrogen and boron. Additionally, Tri-Alpha discussed the difficulties of predicting the future regulatory environment of the fusion energy industry of the future.