Funding news: The Seattle area’s Zap Energy will receive $5 million from a newly launched federal program supporting the commercial development of fusion power.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program announced Wednesday that it was divvying up $46 million among eight commercial fusion ventures in the U.S.
Physicists have pursued fusion energy for decades, eager to discover a commercially viable technology to generate nearly limitless power. Fusion produces energy when atoms are smashed together in super hot, high pressure conditions. Zap aims to put fusion energy on the grid by 2030.
“We have generated energy by drawing power from the sun above us. Fusion offers the potential to create the power of the sun right here on Earth,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a statement.
While the DOE funding amount isn’t massive, its greater significance “is the vote of confidence, the engagement at the national level,” said Uri Shumlak, Zap co-founder and chief scientist.
Research news: The challenge with fusion is producing more energy from the process than it takes to create it, a target called “breakeven” or “Q=1.”
Fusion researchers and companies mark various milestones on the route to breakeven and there is some variability in how the “Q” measurements are made. Zap has devised a new method for quantifying energy production in its fusion system to create consistency in the measurement. The methodology will be published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal next week.
Zap set a goal of reaching breakeven this year, though Shumlak admitted on Wednesday that the time frame “is going to be challenging.”
But achieving commercial energy production by the end of the decade is tenable, he said. “We’re making really strong progress and proving out some of the scaling.”
Zap’s tech: Zap is developing sheared-flow-stabilized Z-pinch fusion technology. The company’s device drives electric currents through a filament of superheated material called plasma. The current creates powerful magnetic fields around the plasma, compressing the material and producing conditions that are sufficient for creating fusion reactions that generate energy.
Zap launched in 2017 and has grown to 130 employees in offices in Everett and Mukilteo. Zap was co-founded by University of Washington professors Shumlak and Brian A. Nelson, with technology developed in collaboration with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The third founder is entrepreneur and investor Benj Conway.
The team touts their approach as simpler than other fusion strategies that require massive magnets and lasers.
Exploring commercialization: TransAlta, the company that operates Washington’s last operating coal plant, is ceasing operations in 2025. Zap is working with the company to determine if it could locate its fusion plant at the southwest Washington site.
Some of the facility’s equipment and workforce could be adapted for fusion. “We’re just replacing the coal burner with another heating source,” Shumlak said.
Washington is home to two other fusion ventures: Helion Energy in Everett and Avalanche Energy in Seattle.
“It’s exciting to see Washington state once again playing a leading role in the development of clean energy technologies and innovative solutions to help us tackle the climate crisis,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, in a statement announcing the DOE news.
Funding and honors: Last year Zap raised $160 million in a round led by Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital. Its additional investors are Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Shell Ventures, DCVC, Valor Equity Partners, Addition, Energy Impact Partners, and Chevron Technology Ventures.
The company’s total funding is roughly $200 million in venture capital and $12.8 million in government grants. The company is pursuing additional investment dollars.
Zap was also a finalist in the Sustainable Innovation of the Year category at the recent 2023 GeekWire Awards.
Fusion milestones: The World Survey of Fusion Devices recently identified more than 130 fusion systems currently in operation, being built or in planning, and there has been meaningful scientific and commercial progress in the field in the past year.
In December, the DOE announced a “first-of-its kind achievement” in which a research fusion reactor hit breakeven. The milestone was reached at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California.
In early May, Microsoft and Helion Energy announced a historic agreement in which the fusion company pledged to begin operating a commercial plant by 2028 and the software company committed to buying the electricity that it generates. If Everett-based Helion is able to deliver, it could be the world’s first commercial fusion power plant.