Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Startup Thea Energy developed an approach to thermonuclear energy, combining accuracy and economy — programmed control of magnets for stabilization of plasma in thermonuclear reactors.

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Source: Thea Energy

The startup Thea Energy aimed at the creation of an innovative thermonuclear power station, using an approach that combines aspects of the two main methods of plasma containment: inertial and magnetic. The main task of engineers is the achievement of reliable and stable operation of plasma, which is the key moment for successful work.

 

Inertial containment of plasma is based on the use of lasers, which vaporize the fuel tablet and create the necessary conditions for a thermonuclear reaction. This method gained popularity in late 2022, when it was convincingly shown that this is not science fiction, but real technology.

Magnetic containment of plasma, in turn, is based on the use of powerful magnetic fields to contain the hot plasma inside the reactor. High temperature superconductors are used to create suitable magnetic poles. They create magnetic fields of various forms, the most common designs being tokamaks and stellators.

Tokamaks are conical structures that are widely used in large reactors. They require high precision manufacturing of magnets to ensure stable containment of the plasma and maintain it at the required temperature. Stellarators are more complex designs, which offer some advantages in plasma stabilization, but require more precise manufacturing of the magnets. They are created with intentionally deformed magnetic fields, and the process of manufacturing each magnet requires a large amount of engineering and manufacturing know-how, which increases the costs of production.

Thea Energy decided to build a stellarator, but wanted to avoid the complexities and costs associated with the creation of complex magnetic fields. Instead they used an approach developed at the Princeton Laboratory for Plasma Physics. They constructed a reactor in the form of a donut with an array of high-temperature superconductor magnets, each of which is controlled by software.

Software controls the expansion and contraction of the magnetic fields of the various magnets in the array, allowing the plasma to behave as if it were found inside a complex stellarator. This approach allows avoiding the complex and costly processes of manufacturing complex magnets that are required for stellarators.

Creating such a system represents a complex technical process, but the Thea Energy team says it has met the challenge. As noted by Brian Berzin, co-founder and CEO of Thea Energy, their approach can be compared to a flat coil with a computer display, where each magnet is a pixel, controlled by software. The creation of the stellarator form with its inherent stability allows it to be dispensed with by conventional control computers, without the need to use exotic systems.

To develop the system Thea Energy used a modular approach, which allows to accelerate the development and testing of the system. The company currently produces full-scale magnets in its laboratory in Jersey City. This is comparable to the process of collecting magnets for the 64-foot reactor at ITER in France. However, thanks to the modular approach, Thea Energy can conduct testing of individual magnets and smaller arrays, simulating the final design. Such an approach significantly simplifies the development process and provides the ability to conduct testing at early stages.

Development of thermonuclear energy will require huge efforts and financial investments. However, the Thea Energy team is confident in the potential of its approach and continues to attract investment for the further development of the project. Recent startup attracted investment in the amount of $20 000 000 within the framework of series А. The investment round was attended by companies such as Prelude Ventures, 11.2 Capital, Anglo American, Hitachi Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, Mercator Partners, Orion Industrial Ventures and Starlight Ventures. This is an important stage in the development of the project and a clear recognition of its potential in solving the energy problems of the future.

Thea Energy plans to build a pilot reactor in the coming years, and in the 2030s develop a demonstration power station with a capacity of 350 megawatts. The company strives to reach the price of electricity production at the level of $50 per megawatt-hour by the time of implementation of the commercial offer. According to company representatives, this corresponds to the current level of cost of solar energy with batteries. At the same time, the offered price will be slightly higher than the cost of a gas power plant with combined cycle and slightly lower than the cost of a coal power plant. Thus, if Thea Energy can achieve its goals, it will offer a competitive solution.

However, like all startups in the field of thermonuclear energy, Thea Energy faces the same challenge: the complexity of mastering this technology is so high that no one has yet succeeded in its commercial implementation. Therefore, we have to think about how to reduce costs so that thermonuclear energy reactors can compete with renewable energy sources and batteries, the prices of which continue to decline. There are several pathways to achieve this goal, and the Thea Energy approach appears promising and promising.

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