Nuclear fusion milestone sees TAE Technologies raise $280m

9 Apr 2021

Image: TAE Technologies

The latest funding round will support the company’s aim of delivering a commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor by 2030.

TAE Technologies is confident that it can deliver a commercial nuclear fusion plant by the end of the decade following a major scientific achievement.

As lead experimental scientist Erik Trask explained to in 2019, TAE Technologies is pursuing nuclear fusion using hydrogen and boron, as this presents “essentially unlimited sources and essentially no waste or pollution”.

Extensive research has been undertaken by the California-headquartered company since 1998 to show how practical nuclear power plants could be built in this way for large-scale energy needs. Doing this requires that plasma – extremely hot matter – is confined at hot enough temperatures for a long enough timeframe to enable fusion reactions.

Back in 2015, TAE validated that its approach could sustain plasma for an indefinite length of time, cracking the ‘long enough’ part of the equation. This week, the company claimed to have achieved a second significant milestone in unlocking conditions hot enough to scale to a reactor-level performance.

‘The laws of physics are on our side’

Over the course of an 18-month testing regime, TAE has demonstrated consistent performance in producing stable plasma at more than 50m degrees Celsius. This has been replicated across many hundreds of test cycles in a compact reactor dubbed Norman.

Norman is TAE’s fifth-generation national laboratory-scale nuclear fusion device. Extensive experiments were optimised using technologies such as machine learning from Google, which is an investor in TAE.

“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” said TAE CEO Michl Binderbauer.

“Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorising that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase. We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behaviour with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”

Results from Norman have been reviewed and endorsed by TAE’s independent science panel as well as its board of directors, which includes Dr Richard Meserve, president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution for Science and former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Commercial nuclear fusion by 2030

TAE has also raised a further $280m in funding from new and existing investors. As the company has received funding in tranches based on achieving projected goals in research and development, this round comes as a direct result of its latest scientific achievement.

The fresh investment adds to funding of more $130m secured earlier this year and raises the company’s total funding to date to more than $880m. As well as Google, the company’s investors include the Wellcome Trust and the Kuwait Investment Authority. In May 2019, it was valued at $2.6bn, according to PitchBook data reported by Reuters.

The investment will be used to further TAE Technologies’ work to commercialise nuclear fusion. Some of the capital will be used to initiate the development of a reactor-scale demonstration facility called Copernicus, which will operate in excess of 100m degrees Celsius.

It is intended that Copernicus will provide opportunities for TAE to licence and scale its technology.

Having validated its approach, TAE believes the company can scale to the conditions necessary for an economically viable commercial fusion power plant by the end of the decade. According to Popular Mechanics, the company is confident of delivery by 2030 owing to the tools and knowledge it has built up in recent years, leveraging advances in AI, machine learning, faster electronics, magnets and materials science.

‘TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs’

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” said Binderbauer. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernising the entire energy grid.”

The new investment in TAE will also support rapid commercialisation of the company’s power management technology. This will be used to extend the range, efficiency and speed of charging electric vehicles. It’s also intended for deployment in residential, commercial, industrial and utility-scale electrical grid applications.

“TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs,” said board director and long-time investor Addison Fischer. TAE’s most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.