With Paul Allen’s backing, Tri Alpha Energy revs up ‘Norman’ device for fusion research

Norman plasma generator
Tri Alpha Energy’s plasma generator has been nicknamed “Norman” in honor of the company’s late co-founder, physicist Norman Rostoker. (Tri Alpha Energy Photo)

Tri Alpha Energy, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has achieved first plasma in its latest generator.

The $100 million device at Tri Alpha’s lab in Foothill Ranch, Calif., had been known as C-2W, but it’s been renamed “Norman” in honor of company co-founder Norman Rostoker, a fusion physicist who died in 2014 at the age of 89.

“We believe this machine will continue to prove the approach to plasma physics he first envisioned and to which he dedicated his life,” Michl Binderbauer, Tri Alpha’s president and chief technology officer, said in a news release.

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun, and it also plays a role in an H-bomb blast, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2.

For decades, scientists have held out hope that fusion can be harnessed for a totally benign purpose: to generate cheap, plentiful electricity with no greenhouse-gas emissions. Fusion reactors would produce far less radioactive waste than today’s nuclear fission reactors, particularly if they use clean fuels such as hydrogen and boron.

Tri Alpha says it has attracted $500 million in investment for private-sector fusion research over the past 20 years. In addition to Allen’s Vulcan Capital, institutional investors include the Rockefeller family’s Venrock venture capital firm and Rusnano, a Russian investment firm.

Like previous versions of the plasma generator, Norman is designed to take advantage of advanced field-reverse configuration and neutral-beam injection to sustain nuclear fusion.

The method, which sets magnetized plasma spinning like a top inside a containment vessel, is considered a potentially low-cost alternative to the multinational, multibillion-dollar ITER fusion research project now taking shape in France.

Tri Alpha Energy fusion reactor
An artist’s conception shows a cutaway view of Tri Alpha Energy’s fusion reactor in operation. (Tri Alpha Energy Illustration)

In 2015, Tri Alpha hit a significant milestone when Norman’s predecessor, the C2-U plasma generator, held superheated hydrogen plasma in a stable state for 5 milliseconds.

That’s just one small step on the way toward commercial fusion power, but Tri Alpha says Norman, a fifth-generation device that was built over the course of the past year, will expand upon C-2U’s legacy now that first plasma has been achieved.

“This important milestone is a great achievement for our company, and will allow us to further our leadership in breakthrough fusion technology while critically validating our unique vision of generating clean, sustainable and abundant energy,” Binderbauer said.

Other privately funded fusion ventures include Helion Energy in Redmond, Wash., which has won backing from tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s Mithril investment firm; and General Fusion, which is headquartered in Burnaby, B.C., and counts Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, among its investors.

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