Posted on: June 14, 2022 Posted by: Jerry D. Pfeil Comments: 0

The future of practical nuclear fusion is known for being 10 years away. The Pentagon awarded a small startup a grant to help it launch a fusion power plant into space in five years.

It is not hard to find VC-backed organizations, whether nation-states or startups, that want to achieve the goal of nuclear fusion power being cheap, reliable, and clean. Avalanche Energy Designs is even more ambitious and is located near a Boeing plant in Seattle. It is developing modular “microfusion packs” that are small enough to be held in hand but powerful enough to power everything, from spaceships to electric cars.

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit announced last month that it had given Avalanche an undisclosed amount to help develop its Orbitron Fusion device, which can generate heat or electricity. This will enable Avalanche to power a high-efficiency propulsion unit aboard a prototype satellite by 2027. Avalanche received one of two contracts from the DIU. The second was awarded to Seattle’s Ultra Safe Nuclear to develop its radioisotope batteries.

Science is very well-understood about fusion. You can force hydrogen nuclei (or other light elements) to come together and release huge amounts of energy. Most attempts to overcome plasma’s electrostatic repulsion of particles involve high temperatures (as in The Iter project, which cost more than the US $25Billion) or powerful laser pulses and projectiles. Validating these approaches requires expensive, complex and large hardware.

Avalanche’s Orbitron could, theoretically, fit on a tabletop. It is based on the Ph.D. It is based on the Ph.D. thesis of Tom McGuire, an MIT student working on inertial electromagnetic confinement (IEC). Philo Farnsworth was the first to imagine IEC. IEC devices contain fuel ions within electric fields supported by spherical electrodes. The IEC device allows the ions to recirculate, giving them multiple opportunities to fuse.

McGuire studied the behavior of these ions using different cathode grids. He found that certain configurations caused the plasma to self-organize into a synchronized pulse collection of “ion bunches” for around one-tenth of a second. This was a significant increase in the probability of fusion. McGuire received his Ph.D. from Lockheed Martin and was part of the Skunk Works division, which developed its compact concept for fusion. Carl Dietrich, McGuire’s fusion partner at MIT, explored another technology that is “always a decade off”: flying cars. )

McGuire’s IEC work remained unfinished until it was discovered by Robin Langtry (Blue Origin) and Brian Riordan (Blue Origin). McGuire and Riordan formed Avalanche Energy in 2018. They eventually left Blue Origin in 2021. Avalanche emerged as a stealth company with $5 million in venture capital funding and 10 employees in March 2018. However, Avalanche’s official address in Seattle is still a single-family residence.

Avalanche proudly states on its website: “We see our Fusion Power Packs as the foundation for creating an abundant clean water, healthy seas, and vast rain forests in healthy equilibrium.”

Langtry and Riordan filed a patent application that outlines how Orbitron might work. The patent application describes an orbital containment device of about tens to centimeters. A beam of fuel ions interacts and creates an electrostatic field that causes an elliptical orbit around an inner electrode. The application describes a system in which ions can last for as much as a second or even longer than McGuire’s simulations. It also allows each ion to complete millions upon orbits within the reactor.

GeekWire published an article claiming that Avalanche had produced neutrons through fusion. Avalanche envisions small fusion packs of 5- to 15-kilowatt power, which can be used on their own or in groups by the hundreds for clean-energy solutions at a megawatt-scale. The Pentagon is interested in acquiring the packs to allow small spacecraft to move freely in deep space with greater power payloads.

Avalanche must move from a 15-year-old Ph.D. thesis on simulation to a working prototype, in space, within 60 months. Tom McGuire, Lockheed’s fusion scientist, wouldn’t comment on IEEE Spectrum except to say that he knew of Avalanche and wished them well. Avalanche did not respond to inquiries for interviews.

Although reactions from fusion experts were mixed, all agreed that many engineering challenges are ahead. One observer noted that the orbital-confinement claim is “the key piece of the technology.” span> The main challenge span> is to reach high enough densities without affecting the orbital motion’s intelligent behavior.

Another person, who requested not to be identified, was skeptical. The problem is that fusion can also occur when two ions are close. The probability of fusion is lower than other things like scattering. He wrote that increasing the ion density does not increase the probability of fusions but increases the likelihood of scattering.” “VC just invested $5M into an approach that, in my opinion, is a nonstarter span>

Jason Cassibry is an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s department of mechanical and aeronautical engineering in Huntsville. He disagrees. He said that there is a “pretty good route to breakeven”. This refers to when a reactor produces more energy than it uses. They’ll need to do a lot more modeling and work to find the right combination of things to make it work .”

Cassibry noted that many fusion reactions generate neutrons which could harm payloads and materials as well as humans on future spacecraft. This would increase engineering complexity but could be a short-term commercial advantage. He says that even if they fail, they still have a useful device as a low-cost neutron source. It has many applications, including homeland security and medical imaging.

Cassibry was asked if he believes Avalanche’s Fusion Pack will fly to space in 2027. He said that he hesitated to say so because someone makes a grand slam every once in a while. It would be much easier if they could write a check for a million dollars instead of just a few million. It’s difficult to do things like this .”

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