A possible fusion breakthrough at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) is fueling a startup company.
A tantalum metal cold-spray coating could help stainless steel withstand the extremely high-temperatures inside fusion reactors, UW researchers claim. To create fusion, reactors need to heat plasma to temperatures over 150 million degrees Celsius.
This creates dangers because the plasma can melt almost any metal. Tantalum can withstand high temperatures. Obviously, the super-hot plasma creates an enormous fire hazard. Indeed, I think fusion temperatures could be a greater threat than fission reactors’ radiation.
The plasma is so hot some fusion reactor designs use powerful magnetic fields to contain it. If the magnetic fields fail, the plasma could escape and become a danger.
Can a Tantalum Cold-Spray make fusion safer?
The UW researchers blast tantalum particles onto stainless steel to create reactor panels, New Atlas reports. They also claim tantalum can trap errant hydrogen particles.
This can increase fusion reactors power because plasma is an ionized hydrogen gas. Fusion can neutralize some hydrogen particles, which can weaken plasma.
“These hydrogen neutral particles cause power losses in the plasma, which makes it very challenging to sustain a hot plasma and have an effective small fusion reactor,” said Mykola Ialovega, a UW postdoctoral researcher in nuclear engineering and engineering physics tells New Atlas.
“Another big benefit of the cold spray method is that it allows us to repair reactor components on site by applying a new coating,” Ialovega says. “Currently, damaged reactor components often need to be removed and replaced with a completely new part, which is costly and time consuming.”
Fusion breakthrough could power this company
They will test the tantalum metal cold-spray coating in the Wisconsin HTS Asymmetric Mirror (WHAM) fusion reactor. The WHAM operates at the Wisconsin Plasma Physics Laboratory.
If the coating works in the WHAM, they could apply to Realta Fusion’s private reactor. Realta Fusion is a start-up company associated with UW-Madison. Realta claims to have raised $12 million to finance its magnetic mirror fusion technology. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation licensed the WHAM’s core fusion technology to Realta. Realta’s founders hope to use the WHAM technology to develop power generation and industrial heat devices.
The company has received $9 million from venture capital firm Khosla Ventures and $3 million from the US Department of Energy’s Fusion Development Program, a press release claims.
Is Fusion Going Private?
Realta resembles Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Commonwealth claims to have raised over $2 billion to commercialize the ARC fusion reactor.
Commonwealth has a 50-acre campus in Devens, Massachusetts. The campus will house the SPARC fusion reactor that will demonstrate the ARC technology. Commonwealth executives claim they could generate electricity for the grid with an ARC by the 2030s. The campus will contain CFS’s corporate headquarters and a manufacturing facility for reactor components.
Commonwealth and Realta Fusion are spin-out companies. A spin-out is a private company they create to commercialize a technology university researchers invent.
Is Fusion Spinning Out?
Spin-outs played an important role in the digital revolution. For example, Stanford University PhD students Sergey Brin and Larry Page formed Google, now Alphabet (GOOG) in 1998. The two initially hosted Google’s search engine on Stanford’s servers. Alphabet had a $1.72 trillion Market Capitalization on 18 December 2023.
Similarly, ARM Holdings (ARM), which designs processors spun out of the University of Oxford. Arm Holdings had a $71.21 billion Market Capitalization on 18 December 2023. Thus, spin-outs can generate enormous value.
Researchers at two major US universities think fusion is a technology that can support profitable companies. Moreover, those researchers think they can make money from fusion.
I don’t know if Realta or Commonwealth can succeed. However, these companies’ existence shows commercial fusion could be coming. Commercial fusion could be a game changer that can upend our economy by providing enormous amounts of cheap energy.
Smart investors and speculators need to watch these fusion spin-outs.