Blue Origin vets unveil startup looking for small resolution to huge problem of fusion vitality

From left: Avalanche Energy co-founders Brian Riordan, COO, and Robin Langtry, CEO, alongside their test fusion device at their Seattle facility. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

As Avalanche Energy founders Robin Langtry and Brian Riordan have been grinding through the development of their fusion technology, they keep expecting to hit a wall.

The team is taking a less conventional approach to fusion energy, building a small-scale solution and foregoing the outrageous temperatures and ultra powerful magnets required by other systems. The simpler, seemingly elegant approach has left them wondering if it’s possible that no one else has developed or patented the design — or done the research showing it won’t work.

The wall, so far, has not materialized. But positive developments have. The startup has raised a $5 million seed round, secured a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) International Patent, and recently emerged from stealth mode. A few weeks ago, Langtry and Riordan generated their first neutrons via fusion.

“There’s no point in doing a space company if the Earth is on fire.”

Avalanche Energy launched in 2018 and this summer it opened its research facility just down the street from Seattle’s Museum of Flight and the original Boeing site. It has quickly grown to 10 employees and expects to double that by the end of the year.

The company is part of a growing community of fusion enterprises in the Pacific Northwest that includes Helion, Zap Energy and CTFusion in Washington state and British Columbia’s General Fusion.

The other venures are geared toward larger-scale energy production for utilities and other users, creating multiple niches in the field.

“There’s actually not a lot of competition,” said Langtry, the company’s CEO. “It is really collaborative.”

The system that Avalanche Energy is developing would measure about the size of a large shoe box (one-foot diameter, two-feet long). It could be deployed as multiple units to power cargo ships, airplanes and other sectors of the economy that are going to be tricky to wean off of fossil fuels. They estimate it would take six of the devices, for example, to power a passenger car.

Lubos Brieda, president of Particle in Cell Consulting, provided a third-party evaluation of the startup’s proof of concept. The Los Angeles-area engineer is bullish on the small-scale approach to fusion.

“The future,” he said, “is in these small reactors.”

VC helps fusion launch

Avalanche Energy team, March 2022. (Avalanche Photo)

Nuclear fusion — a carbon-free, infinite source of power that’s safer than atom-splitting fission — has for decades been the Holy Grail of the energy sector. The ultimate fusion reactor is the sun. Hobbyists, including even a middle school student, can create fusion reactions. But the challenge is generating sustained fusion in a system that produces more energy than it requires to operate, and efficiently captures the energy that’s released.

In the past, fusion innovation was largely driven by government-funded projects that focused on large-scale efforts like the $25 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France or the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

But that’s changing. Now VC dollars are backing smaller, private efforts as the world scrambles to create and deploy new clean-tech and climate tech to forestall the most dire impacts of global warming. Last year, Helion landed a giant $500 million round and California-based TAE Technologies reported $410 million in investments.

Avalanche Energy’s $5 million first round was led by Prime Impact Fund (now Azolla Ventures) and included Congruent Ventures, Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital, and nearly a dozen smaller investors.

Langtry and Riordan credit the space sector for providing something of a model for fusion. That field was once largely dominated by federal research, but now private companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Rocket Lab are generating headlines that used to come only from NASA.

VC funding could likewise launch fusion.

“I think that our timing was just perfect for that cusp of people saying, ‘I think we can do really wild, tough things in private industry faster and without the bureaucracy red tape’ and are willing to put money down on it,” said Riordan, the chief operating officer.

Back to Earth

Langtry and Riordan met at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company in Kent, Wash., where both worked on rocket propulsion systems.

The Avalanche Energy team is aiming to develop a small-scale fusion device that could be used to power vehicles including cargo ships and airplanes. This is an artist’s illustration of the potential relative size of their technology. (Avalanche Energy Image)

They appreciated the culture that encouraged employees to take audacious risks and learn from their mistakes. But recently the existential and increasingly visible impact of climate change has brought their passions back to terra firma.

“There’s no point in doing a space company,” Langtry said, “if the Earth is on fire.”

Langtry had been exploring fusion more as a hobby, with an eye to using reactors to power space flight (see the Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon as a source of inspiration). As the duo refocused on Earth-bound applications, they set some parameters for their fusion solution: No giant lasers, no massive magnets.

While researching the field, Langtry came across a graduate thesis from a Lockheed Martin researcher named Tom McGuire. It included open source code for simulations for an electrostatic fusion reactor. The idea became the seed for Avalanche Energy’s technology.

A strategy for fusion

The startup is building its fusion generator prototype out of a mix of off-the-shelf and custom-made parts.

They’re using a modified Knight trap, a type of orbiting ion trap, as the core of the reactor and electrostatic source for high-energy, ion confinement over long periods of time. They created ion guns to fire deuterium ions — a heavy form of hydrogen — into the ion trap. A high voltage generator creates conditions in the reactor that produce the plasma in which the ions can orbit, collide, fuse and release energy.

The team has generated energy in the form of high speed neutrons, and will be adding magnets to the system to create a higher density reactor that produces more energy. They also need to set up the means for transforming the heat energy that’s produced into electrical energy.

“There are all these small technical challenges,” said Brieda, the outside expert. “Until you build something and demonstrate it, it’s still a research project.”

The most daunting technical hurdle, the founders said, will be creating sufficiently high voltage — something on the order of 600,000 volts — in a small space to make the whole thing go (by comparison a car battery is about 13 volts).

“We learn and make progress on something that looks, from the big picture, so insurmountable,” Riordan said. “But there’s little baby steps along the way [that] are empowering, exciting to people. And they’re marching towards our end goal.”

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