The news: Seattle-based startup Zap Energy is close to promising fusion. The company announced two major milestones on Wednesday: its latest prototype device created plasma, superheated gas needed to generate fusion, and raised $ 160 million in new funding with support from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and two oil giants.
Zap Energy, which has offices in Everett and Mukilteo, Washington, has raised a total of about $ 200 million since its launch in 2017.
The challenge: Fusion – a carbon-free, endless source of energy that is safer than atomic fission – has been the Holy Grail of the energy sector for decades. The best thermonuclear reactor is the sun. Hobbyists, including even a high school student, can create synthesis reactions.
But the obstacle that has so far proved insurmountable is the generation of long-term synthesis in a system that produces more energy than is needed for work and effectively captures the energy that is released.
Businesses around the world are fusing a range of devices from the size of a large shoebox to the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. Zap Energy encompasses a smaller, simpler technology that uses a Z-clamp stabilized by shear flow to create plasma. The approach avoids the need for superconducting magnets and powerful lasers.
The breakthrough: Zap Energy last week created plasma in FuZE-Q, its fourth-generation Z-pinch device. Now it has to increase the current flowing through it to achieve a “break” – the point at which it generates more power, which it uses.
The company estimates that it must produce 650 kA (kiloamperes) of current to get there. At this point, they have reached 500 kA, which is a significant improvement. When the team started at the University of Washington, they produced about 50 kA (for comparison, one lightning bolt is about 30 kA).
Zap Energy is building a new supercapacitor bank that will be able to generate electricity pulses of up to 1000 kA. Construction should be completed by the end of the year.
But even this achievement does not guarantee success. The system must continue to grow, which can adjust the physics in unexpected ways, which changes the retention, compression and stabilization of the plasma.
Fusion cluster: New funding from Zap Energy is helping to strengthen the Northwest Pacific as a fusion hotspot. In November 2021, Everett-based Helion announced $ 500 million in funding, and General Fusion in British Columbia raised $ 130 million. Avalanche Energy in Seattle, the newer child of the fusion bloc, completed a $ 5 million round in March this year.
South California-based TAE Technologies garnered two rounds last year for a total of about $ 410 million.
The founders: Zap Energy is co-founded by UW Professors Uri Shumlak and Brian A. Nelson with technology developed in collaboration with researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The third founder is entrepreneur and investor Benge Conway. The company has more than 60 employees.
Funding entities: Zap Energy’s latest round was led by Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital with new investors, including Breakthrough, Shell Ventures, DCVC and Valor Equity Partners. Existing investors who also participated include Addition, Energy Impact Partners and Chevron Technology Ventures.