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Scientists achieve astonishingly high temperatures with breakthrough fusion reactions: 'Outside the status quo'

"We've certainly got big challenges ahead, but we have all the ingredients to solve them."

"We've certainly got big challenges ahead, but we have all the ingredients to solve them."

Photo Credit: Zap Energy

Temperatures in America's Northwest have hit a blistering 20 million to 66 million degrees Fahrenheit. 

In truth, blistering is an understatement for what has been accomplished in labs at the Seattle area's Zap Energy, where experts are creating fusion reactions that generate heat at a level comparable to the sun's core

The work, detailed by Interesting Engineering (IE) and Zap, represents a path toward leveraging clean, sustainable fusion power that has been difficult to harness at scale. Zap's compact tech is designed to someday be part of a power plant. The innovation is a continuation of research started at the University of Washington, leveraging funding from the federal government. 

The breakthrough happens in part by heating deuterium and tritium to sun-like proportions until they fuse, making "high-energy helium and neutrons." Those elements can be captured to make heat and electricity without the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, all per Zap. Fascinatingly, the fusion fuel releases 10 million times as much energy as coal. 

The tech improves on other fusion concepts by eliminating the need for expensive magnets and lasers. Now, the experts are working toward a machine that produces as much energy as it consumes, which has been elusive to date. 

"Zap tech is orders of magnitude less expensive and quicker to build than other devices, allowing us to iterate rapidly and produce the cheapest thermal fusion neutrons out there. Compelling innovation economics are vital to launching a commercial fusion product on a timescale that matters," Zap CEO Benj Conway said in a press release. 

As of last August, the United States had 54 nuclear fission plants, generating about 19% of the nation's power, per government statistics. While fission is air-pollution free, fission is more radioactive, and susceptible to rare, yet disastrous catastrophes.  

Fusion eliminates the meltdown problem. But the science to stabilize the reactions in a cost-effective and efficient way has been hard to perfect. Projects in development include what is billed as the "most complex machine ever designed," located in France. It's about as expensive as it sounds, checking in at more than $20 billion so far. 

If fusion can be made reliably at lower cost, it would revolutionize our energy system. Nearly 100% of the country's carbon dioxide pollution from electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels. Nuclear power could end that toxic pollution altogether, benefiting public health, food system productivity, and even your kids' grades. Planet overheating has been linked to negative outcomes for each of those core parts of our lives. 

Zap's team members think they may have the answer. They have commissioned the next version of their tech, the FuZE-Q, which can produce even more heat than previous versions, according to IE.  

"We started Zap knowing we had a technology that was unique and outside the status quo," Conway said, acknowledging that the researchers still have milestones to meet on the road to sustainable fusion power. 

"We've certainly got big challenges ahead, but we have all the ingredients to solve them," he added. 

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