A small startup has announced a major advance towards fusion power, the Holy Grail of energy that could rid us of fossil fuels forever. Tri Alpha Energy says it's built a machine that can hold a hot blob of plasma steady at 10 million degrees Celsius for five whole milliseconds.
Fusion power, the ever-science fictional energy source physicists have been chasing for decades, is premised on heating hydrogen atoms to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun to produce a roiling mixture of electrons and ions known as plasma. When ions in a plasma collide, they sometimes form new atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy. (This is, in fact, the same type of reaction powers the stars.) If only humans could figure out how to sustain a fusion reaction, we could kiss dirty carbon pollution goodbye.
If Tri Alpha's claim is true, then the company has managed to hold a superheated ball of plasma steady for an incredibly long time in fusion terms. What's more, they have done so using a rather unusual reactor design — a long, cylindrical tube that collides pairs of plasma doughnuts to produce enormous amounts of heat. The resultant plasma blob is then stabilised with beams of high-energy particles, as explained in the video below:
What's next for Tri Alpha? A bigger, more powerful fusion tube that can reach even hotter temperatures and longer reaction times, hopefully. But let's not get too excited just yet. Many well-funded government laboratories and private companies have been promising fusion for a long time, and this one — which barely anybody had heard of before this week, which doesn't even have a website — is shadowy to put it mildly. Also this month, a team of MIT researchers proposed a small, compact fusion reactor design,which they claim could be driving power to the grid within a decade.
One way or another, it seems we're still years out from useful fusion. But hey, it it can't hurt to start placing bets on which of these future energy outfits is going to announce a major breakthrough next.
Picture: YouTube screenshot