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Helion Energy Achieves Key Fusion Milestone

Hacker News - Thu Jul 22 05:51

US-based Helion Energy announced that its sixth fusion generator prototype has exceeded 100 million degrees Celsius. The prototype, called Trenta, has undergone a 16-month series of reliability and durability tests on key components of the fusion process.

This is the temperature a commercial reactor would operate at, the company said. Meanwhile, the durability tests confirm the reliability of the system. These achievements give the company confidence to proceed with development of its unique pulsed-fusion, ignition-free device.

A Helion Energy representative told EE Times that the key to Helion’s approach is engineering efficiency. “We directly convert fusion energy into electricity, which means that we don’t require “ignition” and can produce net electricity at much lower net energy [Q] values. Our challenges now are primarily engineering challenges rather than science challenges.”

Helion Energy uses a pulsed fusion system, keeping the fusion device small and allowing for flexible electricity production. It is using deuterium and helium-3 (D-³He) as fuel.

Fusion Energy
Investment in fusion energy research and development has increased. Researchers are achieving encouraging results. There is a growing expectation that fusion might become a viable option for the production of abundant, clean, and reliable electricity.

One of the key obstacles for many fusion power proposals is that using them will require upgrades to the existing power grid. Helion claims it is side-stepping this issue.

“Helion’s fusion electricity generators are compact, use small amounts of fuel, and can run 24/7. Therefore, one of the key benefits of Helion’s power facilities is that they can directly plug into existing transmission infrastructure and replace current fossil-fuel-based power generation without significant investment in additional infrastructure. Grid-level transmission infrastructure is a requirement of large-scale, gigawatt-class power associated with traditional fusion approaches,” said the Helion rep.

Fusion aims to provide an abundant and reliable basic energy solution to meet the world’s growing energy needs.  Climate change is one of the world’s most challenging and pressing challenges, and new energy technologies are needed to answer the climate crisis. From Helion’s perspective, the climate crisis needs a breakthrough and renewables can no longer be the primary source of energy production. As energy needs become more widespread, fusion can provide an abundant and reliable basic energy solution.

“Fusion is an abundant source of zero-carbon baseload power, but unlike fission, fusion cannot produce a runaway chain reaction. If something goes wrong, fusion simply stops. Fusion also does not produce any long-term waste and cannot be weaponized,” said the Helion rep.

Helion energy’s prototype
Helion Energy’s Trenta prototype merged and compressed high-Beta field reversed configuration (FRC) deuterium plasmas under fusion conditions, achieving 9 keV total plasma temperature (over 100 million degrees Celsius) in bulk with operation above 8 keV ion temperature and 1 keV electron temperature. In 2018 its 5th generation prototype produced magnetic fields of 7 T and reached ion temperature of 2 keV at high density.

The system is composed of magnets that accelerate two FRCs to 1 million mph from opposite ends of the 40-foot accelerator. Then they collide in the center. When the FRCs collide in the center of the system, they are compressed by a magnetic field until they reach fusion temperatures. At this temperature, the deuterium and helium-3 ions move quickly, overcoming the forces that repel one another, allowing the ions to combine, or fuse. This releases energy, and the plasma expands, pushing back on the magnetic field. The change in field induces current and thus electricity to power electrical loads (Figure 1).

helion fusion
Figure 1: block diagram of Helion’s system (Source: Helion Energy)

FRC devices confine plasma on closed magnetic field lines in the form of a self-stable torus. Together with the spheromak they are considered part of the compact toroid class of fusion devices. FRC devices normally have a plasma that is more elongated than spheromaks.

“An FRC is a stable, self-contained plasma which can be accelerated and super-heated to 100 M°C+. Further, FRCs are high Beta, which enables direct electricity recapture and require no particle beams, lasers, superconductors, or antimatter,” said the Helion rep.

A series of analyses by X-ray spectroscopy, 1550 nm interferometry, Bremsstrahlung optical emission measurements and neutron diagnostics confirmed the extensive and repeatable operation of Trenta under thermonuclear fusion conditions. Extensive MJ-class discharges, including fusion and compression of high-Beta FRC deuterium plasmas at thermonuclear fusion conditions with associated fluences of fusion products, were performed during the test period.

“Our facilities can operate continuously no matter the weather or time of day, which is ideal for baseload power. Moreover, they are compact and can produce 50 MW of power in a 20,000 square foot space. Additionally, our fusion fuel is found abundantly in water. Earth’s oceans contain enough fusion fuel to power the planet for billions of years without impacting the environment. One glass of Helion’s fusion fuel will generate enough electricity to power a home for 865 years.  Helion-generated baseload electricity is projected to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels from day one without factoring in subsidies or economies of scale,” said the Helion rep.

It is essential to have power management technologies that can support fusion energy. The speaker said that an enabling technology for Helion’s pulsed-magnetic approach to fusion are the high-power semiconductor switches that enable efficient and rapid energy input into the fusion reaction.

“Modern gigahertz-class fiber optic triggering, monitoring, and field programmable gate array (FPGA) processing allow the reliable, synchronous, and efficient operation of Helion’s fusion system. At the generator scale, the ability to provide reliable and throttle-able power allows Helion to load-follow existing renewable generation, eliminating the need for new power management or storage technologies,” said the Helion rep.

The development of fusion energy is a world-class challenge involving many international leaders in science, technology, and industry. All of them are putting their experience and skills at the service of revolutionary technology. Advanced computing solutions also make it possible to use highly complex mathematical models to describe the physics of plasma and simulate its behavior. When fusion is technologically mature enough to be used industrially, it will open up an unprecedented scenario where an extensive supply of clean, safe and sustainable energy can finally be guaranteed.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Maurizio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.