3 min read

Where We’re At with Nuclear Fusion Today

In the heart of Everett, Washington, a new energy revolution is quietly brewing. Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, startup Zap Energy is pioneering nuclear fusion technology that could ultimately release us from dependence on fossil fuels and stake a claim on an estimated $40 trillion market. In an equally unremarkable location nearby, Helion Energy is doing the same. Surprisingly, this isn't Silicon Valley, but a small town next to Boeing's massive campus, where the future of carbon-free energy isn't just a dream, but a reality in the making.

Zap Energy's senior research scientist, Derek Sutherland, likens the creation of a fusion system to building an airplane. The skills required are transferable, with a bit of retooling and retraining. The company's fusion reactor is already producing high-energy neutrons, a sign that they are on the path towards a functioning fusion reactor. Zap is not alone in this endeavor, with competitor Helion Energy also building its own operational fusion prototype, aided in part by aerospace veterans.

These two startups represent a unique melding of expertise and funding, signifying a newfound confidence that the challenge of fusion power is now an engineering problem to be solved, rather than an insurmountable scientific puzzle.

If you’re a novice on fusion, there are a lot of resources on YouTube. I found this video to be particularly easy to follow along with:

The State of Fusion Energy

Zap's Fuze-Q prototype operates quietly in a temperature-controlled room, creating thousands of fusion reactions and generating volumes of data. The reactor itself is compact, no bigger than a desk, but it is designed to produce enough power for 30,000 homes year-round.

This compact design is central to Zap's strategy. As Sutherland explains, reducing the complexity and size of the system is key to keeping costs down, which is why their system avoids using cryogenics, superconducting coils, auxiliary heating, and magnets.

Zap and Helion are part of a group of companies pursuing "alternative fusion," which favors smaller, more practical systems over colossal installations. Their approach is to create short bursts of fusion activity, rather than coaxing a continuous reaction.

These bursts begin with a puff of deuterium plasma that is accelerated and pinched into a tight column by inertia, keeping the plasma stable and generating high energy neutrons until it collapses.

In contrast to Zap's compact approach, ITER, a publicly funded fusion project in France, is a colossal construction that's expected to stand 30 meters tall, weigh more than 18,000 Mini Coopers, and cost over $22 billion. ITER's design is based on the traditional Tokamak model, which relies on superconducting magnets to maintain a continuous fusion reaction in a plasma ten times hotter than the Sun.

Helion has already sold 50 megawatts of power to Microsoft, set for delivery in 2028. Their fusion process involves fusing deuterium with helium-3, a rare and expensive isotope, producing electricity directly from the fusion reaction rather than through the traditional method of boiling water. Helion's founder and CEO, David Kirtley, claims that their system can recover 95% of the input energy, making it more efficient than traditional fusion systems.

Fusion’s Timeline

The path to commercial fusion power is not straightforward. The prototypes developed by Zap and Helion are still in the early stages, and a functioning commercial fusion reactor is still years away.

The industry is likened to the early days of aviation, flush with dozens of different prototypes and methods for achieving flight.

In true poetic fashion, these companies are capitalizing on the available aviation talent pool located near Boeing's campus, illustrating how the fusion energy sector is increasingly perceived as an engineering challenge rather than a purely scientific one.

Ultimately, we just need one method to succeed in generating more power than it consumes. Both companies estimate that milestone could still be another five to ten years away.

Overall, this breakthrough in the fusion power field would play a significant role in the global energy market and contribute to the decarbonization of the planet's energy base load. Creating a clean, ever-present source of electricity grows more important every day. Many great minds are more than compelled to work on climate tech; they feel a duty to do so. And it makes me wonder what problems they will pursue post-fusion.