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Nuclear fusion breakthrough: Uniquely designed micro-reactor reaches 37 million degrees Celsius

Nuclear fusion breakthrough: Uniquely designed micro-reactor reaches 37 million degrees Celsius

The Zap Energy reactor was able to reach a temperature of 37 million degrees Celsius earlier this month. This puts it in a special list of a few competitors who have also succeeded so far.

What is nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion fuses the nuclei of atoms, the tiny particles that make up everything in the universe, together. This occurs at very high temperature and pressure. This process happens constantly in stars: the Sun's intense heat fuses hydrogen atoms to form helium, releasing a lot of energy. The sun uses that energy to burn. If nuclear fusion could be performed in a reactor, it could be a source of infinite clean energy.

If you want to learn more about nuclear fusion, read this comprehensive article.

Tokamak or Stellarator

The two nuclear fusion technologies you hear a lot about are tokamak reactors (like the world's largest reactor in Japan) and star reactors (like this Belgian German
alternative). Both methods use a strong magnetic field to keep the plasma (an extremely hot gas cloud) in the air so that it does not touch the reactor wall. Zap Energy, on the other hand, uses the Z-pinch method. The company claims that this technology does not use “expensive and complex superconducting magnets and powerful lasers.”

They collide and melt

Zap is the first to inject gas into the reactor. The energy explosion ionizes this gas into plasma. This plasma carries an electrical charge ten times as powerful as a lightning bolt. Compressing and heating this plasma, which consists of deuterium and tritium fuel, causes the nuclei to collide and fuse. This process releases heat and electricity.

Z-shaped nuclear fusion was experimented with as early as the 1950s. The problem was that the plasma cooled too quickly, so the fusion occurred on a very small scale. Zap Energy says it has solved this problem through a process it calls split-flow stabilization.

Zap Energy's results were published in the journal Scientific American Physical review letters. The company operates out of Seattle and is a branch of a US government research institute. Zap Energy previously received investments from the Bill Gates Breakthrough Energy Ventures innovation fund. It also received $160 million from Shell Ventures.

Plasma physics

“Dynamics is a beautiful balancing act in plasma physics.” Put
explains Ben Levitt, Vice President of Research and Development at Zap Energy. “As we climb to higher and higher plasma streams, we refine the ‘sweet spot’ where temperature, density and Z-disk lifetime come together to create a stable, high-performance melting plasma.”

Eventually, Zap Energy wants to build small nuclear fusion reactors about 3 x 3 meters in size. These reactors should be able to produce enough electricity for a small city. It is not clear when we will see the first reactor operating. Zap Energy is currently mum on the timeline and next steps to take.

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