This Week’s Space News
Lots of miscellaneous news on various topics this week. First, Blue Origin has sued NASA to stop the award of the Artemis Contract to Space-X. This is not the best way to encourage cooperation with a government agency, but it worked for Bezos on the $10B Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract awarded to Microsoft last year. DOD recently announced the cancellation of JEDI and a new solicitation for an updated Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) contract from Amazon and Microsoft. It has been widely reported that President Trump influenced the award to Microsoft and the new administration influenced the redo but I’m just reporting word of mouth.
In response to the new suit NASA has paused work with SpaceX on the lander through November 1, and a judge has set a case hearing on October 14. Having read the NASA response to the solicitation I see very little chance of the court overthrowing NASA’s award decision. Congress did not appropriate enough funding for NASA to maintain two winners and NASA made the most logical decision.
Jeff Bezos had the opportunity to read the NASA budget and bid accordingly, which he did not. Elon Musk did read the NASA budget and modified his bid to match NASAS’s budget. Therefore, he won the contract. Unfortunately, politics is in play here so I can’t predict an outcome.
Global Warming Updates
We got another fusion power headline this week. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California said they had focused 192 giant lasers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) onto a pea-size pellet, resulting in the release of 1.3 megajoules of energy in 100 trillionths of a second — roughly 10% of the energy of the sunlight that hits Earth every moment, and about 70% of the energy that the pellet had absorbed from the lasers. The scientists hope one day to reach the break-even or "ignition" point of the pellet, where it gives off approximately 100% or more energy than it absorbs.
The NIF is falling behind numerous privately funded fusion powerplant developers and this announcement is to try and maintain funding. Practical fusion devices need a gain (power-out/power-in) of at least two to be useful. NIF is bragging of a gain of 0.7 using laser power (lasers are less than 50% efficient), and therefore has a net gain of probably less than 35%.
I’ll cover some of the more favorable alternative fusion developments below to show the differences.
“TAE Technologies, the world’s largest private fusion company, has announced it will have a commercially viable nuclear fusion power plant by 2030, which puts it years—or even decades—ahead of other fusion technology companies.” This is their words, not mine. Their proposed device is shown below.
The California-based company has raised $880 million in funding for its hydrogen-boron reactor. This reactor isn’t a traditional tokamak or stellarator; instead, it uses a confined particle acceleration mechanism that produces and confines plasma.
TAE is not pursuing a Tokomak-derived device like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). TAE’s tech, which is called advanced beam-driven field-reversed configuration (FRC), uses the autoneutronic hydrogen-boron fusion reaction to generate plasma in a carefully contained area. The tech can also work for hydrogen isotope fuels like deuterium-tritium, TAE says. The particle-accelerating beam heats the molecules to plasma status, then the field-reversed configuration keeps it all together.
TAE is well funded, but Hydrogen-Boron is difficult because of the large Bremsstrahlung radiation losses. Their proposed timeline seems doable. Several of TAE’s competitors are also using a FRC and I’ll cover them next. I am dubious of many of their claims, but they are well funded so I wouldn’t rule them out.
General Fusion is a Canadian company based in Burnaby, British Columbia, which is developing a fusion power device based on magnetized target fusion (MTF). As of 2018 it was developing a prototype to be complete by 2022 which was recently upscaled and recheduled for 2025.
The device under development injects two FRC contained plasma target masses into a cylinder of spinning liquid metal. The target plasma is mechanically compressed to fusion-relevant densities and pressures, by anywhere from a dozen to hundreds (in various designs) of steam-driven pistons. See schematic below.
The Vancouver, Canada-based company plans to demonstrate its MTF technology with its Fusion Demonstration Plant (FDP), to be built at UKAEA's Culham Campus near Oxford in the UK. The FDP - a 70%-scaled version of the commercial pilot plant - is expected to begin operations in 2025.
From there, the rest is a more prosaic business. Hot neutrons escape the plasma and are captured in the liquid metal, and their energy powers a heat exchanger to make power. And with a main chamber of “just” 10 feet in diameter, General Fusion’s MTF reactor is considered small for a fusion technology intended to self-sustain and generate power after reaching plasma ignition.
There are a lot of different critical subsystems that need to operate perfectly in the General Fusion configuration. Pushing hot liquid metals could be the least of their problems. I wish them luck, but their current schedule with their existing funding (~$400M) seems unachievable.
Helion Energy, Inc.- Helion Energy has broken ground on a new facility in Everett, Washington, which will house its seventh-generation fusion prototype, known as Polaris. Construction of the facility, which will also produce helium-3 fuel, is expected to be completed in early-2022.
History - Helion Energy was founded in 2013 by Dr. David Kirtley, Dr. John Slough, Chris Pihl, and Dr. George Votroubek. Investors in Helion include Y Combinator, Mithril Capital Management, and Capricorn Investment Group. The management team won the 2013 National Cleantech Open Energy Generation competition and awards at the 2014 ARPA-E Future Energy Startup competition, were members of the 2014 Y Combinator program, and were awarded a 2015 ARPA-E ALPHA contract, "Staged Magnetic Compression of FRC Targets to Fusion Conditions". In 2021, the firm announced that its Trenta prototype had reached 100 million degrees C after a 16-month test cycle with more than 10,000 pulses. Pressure exceeded 8 T, ion temperatures surpassed 8 keV, and electron temperatures exceeded 1 keV.
Technology - The company's Fusion Engine technology is based on the Inductive Plasmoid Accelerator (IPA) experimentsperformed from 2005 through 2012. This system theoretically operates at 1 Hz, injecting plasma, compressing it to fusion conditions, expanding it, and directly recovering the energy to produce electricity. The IPA experiments claimed 300 km/s velocities, deuterium neutron production, and 2 keV deuterium ion temperatures.
As of 2015, Helion intended to produce and use a fuel which combines deuterium and helium-3. This mix allows mostly aneutronic fusion, releasing only 5% of its energy in the form of fast neutrons. The helium is captured and reused, eliminating supply concerns. Helion has a patent on this process.
The IPA experiments used deuterium-deuterium fusion, which produces a 2.4 MeV neutron per reaction. Helion and MSNW published articles describing a deuterium-tritium implementation which is the easiest to achieve but generates 14 MeV neutrons. The fuel is deuterium-deuterium, which produces Helium-3 potentially for use in fusion reactors and medical imaging.
This fusion approach uses the magnetic field of a field-reversed configuration (FRC) plasmoid (operated with solid state electronics derived from power switching electronics in wind turbines) to prevent plasma energy losses. An FRC is a magnetized plasma configuration notable for its closed field lines, high Beta and lack of internal penetrations.
To inject the target plasmoid into the fusion compression chamber two plasmoids are accelerated at high velocity with pulsed magnetic fields and merge into a single target plasmoid at high pressure. Their 2018 experiments achieved plasmas with multi-keV temperatures. Published records show plans to compress fusion plasmas to 12 Tesla (T).
Energy is captured by direct energy conversion that translates high-energy alpha particles directly into a voltage. This eliminates the need for steam turbines, cooling towers, and associated energy losses. Schematic of Helion Reactor is show below.
Helion Energy appears underfunded (~80M) for the magnitude of the leap forward they are proposing, but I have worked with many of the principals in the past and I know how good they are, so I hope for the best.
The only other FRC fusion system in play was proposed by Lockheed Martin. In 2014 Lockheed claimed that their Skunkworks Team in Palmdale, California would demonstrate a compact fusion reactor in one year and build a prototype Fusion power system in five years. Since then, they have gone strangely quiet. Read into that what you will.
Next, I’ll cover the more traditional Magnetic Confinement devices.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Commonwealth Fusion Systems is backed by several big VC firms as well as two multinational energy conglomerates, Equinor and Eni. Plus, the company is backed by several divisions of the U.S. government and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. It plans to pick a site for its first nuclear fusion reactor called SPARC later this year.
SPARC is a tokamak under development by Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). SPARC plans to verify the technology and physics required to build a power plant based on the ARC fusion power plant concept. The ARC fusion reactor (affordable, robust, compact) is a theoretical design for a compact fusion reactor developed by MIT and PSFC. The ARC design aims to achieve an engineering breakeven of three (to produce three times the electricity required to operate the machine) while being about half the diameter of the ITER reactor and cheaper to build.
The ARC has a conventional D-shaped advanced tokamak layout, as opposed to other small designs like the spherical tokamak. The ARC design improves on other tokamaks through the use of rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) high-temperature superconductor magnets in place of copper wiring or conventional low-temperature superconductors. These magnets can be run at much higher field strengths, 11.2 T on axis, roughly doubling the magnetic field on the plasma axis. The confinement time for a particle in plasma varies with the square of the linear size, and power density varies with the fourth power of the magnetic field, so doubling the magnetic field offers the performance of a machine 4 times larger. The smaller size reduces construction costs, although this is offset to some degree by the expense of the REBCO magnets. A cutaway view of the proposed SPARC Reactor is shown in the figure below.
I think by now you have perceived the pattern. There is literally a trillion-dollar market awaiting the team that first builds a workable fusion reactor. The ITER in France is going to cost $35B and will never be affordable. I have summarized what I think are the four leading commercial candidates. There are competing efforts in China, Russia, England, and Korea. This race will probably go to the best funded teams and General Fusion boasts two gigantic investors: Amazon's Bezos and Shopify founder Tobias Lutke. Commonwealth has pockets about the same size and counts Bill Gates among its investors. Both Gates’s and Lutke’s investments are from firms established specifically for decarbonizing technologies.
I will track the competition and keep you posted. Meanwhile, if one of these teams is successful, we all win.
Thanks for Reading,