Fusion energy holds the promise of virtually limitless, clean power production, but scientists have been unable to successfully harness it as a power source due to complex scientific and technological challenges and the high cost of research. To achieve fusion, a plasma fuel called a target is heated and compressed, causing its nuclei to fuse. However, it is challenging to maintain the temperature and stability of the plasma long enough for fusion to take place. In order to create the extremely high temperatures and densities required for fusion with today’s technology, the reactor systems must be very large and complex, making the reactors, and fusion research in general, both very expensive. Further, many of the current experimental techniques are destructive, meaning that pieces of the experimental set up are destroyed with each experiment, and need to be replaced, adding to the cost and time required for research. The ALPHA program aims to develop low-cost tools and approaches that will accelerate low-cost paths toward achievement of a viable fusion reactor.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
The University of Washington (UW), along with its partner Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will work to mitigate instabilities in the plasma, and thus provide more time to heat and compress it while minimizing energy loss. The team will use the Z-Pinch approach for simultaneously heating, confining, and compressing plasma by applying an intense, pulsed electrical current which generates a magnetic field. While the simplicity of the Z-Pinch is attractive, it has been plagued by plasma instabilities. UW will investigate Z-pinch fusion using sheared-flow stabilized plasmas, meaning that adjacent layers of the plasma move parallel to each other at different speeds. These sheared axial flows have been shown to stabilize Z-pinch instabilities, and the team will investigate whether this will hold true under more extreme conditions using experimental and computational studies. If successful, UW’s design would simplify the engineering required for an eventual reactor through its reduced number of components and efficiency. In addition, the design’s avoidance of single-use components would enable fusion research to progress faster through more rapid experimentation.
If successful, UW’s work will validate a new type of Z-pinch approach, enabling a low-cost, rapid development path towards economical fusion power.
UW’s innovation could accelerate the development of cost-effective fusion reactors, which could provide a nearly limitless supply of domestic power and eliminate dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Fusion reactors offer nearly zero emissions and produce manageable waste products. If widely adopted, they could significantly reduce or nearly eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector.
UW’s approach, if viable, could enable a low-cost path to fusion, reducing research costs to develop economical reactors.