The Future Looks Bright
January 6, 2020 | Michl Binderbauer
Our company was founded in 1998 with the mission to create the safest, most environmentally friendly, globally ubiquitous, inexhaustible form of grid-distributed energy through proton-boron fusion. TAE grew out of the Physics department at the University of California, Irvine – separate, but in close proximity to the school’s premier Earth System Science program. With the environment in mind, we were determined to develop a cost-effective 24/7 clean energy solution to address the growing energy demand, protect clean air and water, and improve overall quality of life around the world.
Fusion is nature’s preferred source of energy. It’s the same process that powers the sun and stars, and it’s what makes life viable on Earth. The energy it generates can be described by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, better known as E=mc2. Energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared. Fusing two light elements together produces a new element (or elements) whose aggregate mass is slightly less than the combined mass of the original two elements. This rather tiny difference in mass, multiplied by the incredibly large number of the speed of light (nearly 300 million meters per second), squared, drives a tremendous release of energy.
There are several known fuel cycles for terrestrial fusion, i.e. different elements that can be fused to produce fusion reactions and, ultimately, electricity. Proton-boron, also known as p-B11, is the cleanest and most abundant fuel cycle of the group. It avoids virtually all environmental impact, particulate emissions and radioactivity. In addition, this fuel cycle maximizes the durability and lifetime of our plants. However, compared to other fuel cycles, p-B11 requires higher temperatures to produce a fusion reaction.
In order to achieve performance levels at this order of magnitude, we needed to develop solutions that transcended traditional plasma physics. Across all approaches to fusion, plasma must be kept hot enough for a long enough time to sustain the fusion reaction. TAE has dedicated itself to develop a proprietary platform that we call an advanced beam-driven Field-Reversed Configuration (FRC), which combines advanced accelerator physics and plasma physics to solve the challenge of fusion, both from a performance and cost perspective. Although p-B11 fusion is our ultimate goal, our configuration can uniquely accommodate p-B11, deuterium-helium-3 (D-He-3) and conventional deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel.
Building upon the scientific knowledge we acquired between 1998 and 2009, including the completion of our first prototype, which was constructed out of a common sewer pipe, and C-2, our first integrated platform, to test the impact of accelerator physics on plasma, TAE started the 2010s by demonstrating record-breaking performance.
2010: Our breakthrough work on core formation and plasma performance was published in Physical Review Letters, and appeared in a broad spectrum of presentations at the American Physical Society’s Annual Meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics.
2012: We discovered the high performance FRC regime, which produced fully macroscopically stable and highly reproducible plasma that clearly demonstrated the beneficial effects of fast ions from the injected beams.
2014: We began to upgrade our C-2 platform into C-2U by adding more beam power, better diagnostics and other performance improvements. We also began a partnership with Google to apply AI/machine learning to accelerate research findings. Together, TAE and Google developed the Optometrist Algorithm, which yields improved outcomes when human and machine learning resources work together. Through this collaboration and other efforts, required programmatic steps that used to take well over a month could be achieved virtually overnight. Sadly, it was also Christmas of this year that we lost our co-founder and scientific North Star, Dr. Norman Rostoker.
2015: Within less than 4 months, we completed the C-2U experimental regime with a milestone in sustained plasma performance. C-2U proved that TAE could hold plasma indefinitely, i.e. Long Enough. This marks a first for a compact, commercially competitive fusion technology. We also published a summary paper of our C-2 research, yielding one of the most read papers in the Physics of Plasmas journal for the year.
2016: TAE began preparing for construction of our fifth-generation fusion platform, C-2W, to demonstrate the ability to scale to higher temperatures, i.e. Hot Enough, which would represent proof of science that TAE’s unique approach can scale to reactor level performance.
2017: We celebrated first plasma on C-2W, and renamed the machine Norman in honor of Dr. Rostoker.
2018: Over the course of a decade, TAE invested roughly $100 million in patented particle accelerator technology as a cornerstone of our unique fusion design. These highly flexible and tunable particle beams can also be leveraged for similar innovations in other sectors. We launched our first subsidiary, TAE Life Sciences, to adapt our accelerator-based technology for a non-invasive, highly targeted treatment for the most difficult cancers. The resultant compact neutron source will enable this revolutionary treatment to be offered in clinical settings for patients worldwide, starting with first human clinical treatments in 2020.
TAE also developed a transformational power management solution for Norman, which delivers gigawatt-scale electricity with highly flexible, efficient and accurate bi-directional, sub-millisecond scale control. We have performed considerable due diligence and have not found any similar competing technology base in the market today. As a result, we began developing partnerships to leverage this breakthrough innovation for various opportunities in the electric mobility market as well as forthcoming applications in grid-scale power management.
2019: TAE completed Norman’s experimental regime, achieving plasma temperatures that give confidence to scale to our next platform, a net energy viability demonstration called Copernicus.
So what will the next 10 years bring?
It is an old cliché to say that fusion is always 20 (or 30 or 50) years away. In other words, a naysayer’s shorthand for “I’ll believe it when I see it.” With TAE’s proven approach and original science, coupled with the tremendous technological advances over the last 10 years, we not only believe it now, we are convinced we have a timely, viable pathway to fusion-based electricity.
TAE’s reactor-scale platform Copernicus is currently in development. It is designed to prove the viability of net energy production from the D-T fuel cycle. We will then construct a final prototype to demonstrate net energy gain with p-B11, and expect commercialization of p-B11 fusion power plants beginning at the end of the decade or shortly thereafter.
While pioneering new interdisciplinary science doesn’t always go according to plan, I am proud to say TAE has achieved every one of our scientific milestones on or under time and budget for the last 20 years. Our results are routinely validated by peer-reviewed journals and our independent Science Panel consisting of multiple Nobel laureates and Maxwell Prize winners. We have been recognized with awards from the U.S. Department of Energy to the UCI Physical Sciences Hall of Fame. We have successfully expanded our innovations into other vital markets such as power management, electric mobility and life sciences. And just the same as Day 1, we work passionately and diligently to be the change we want to see in the world. The future depends on it.