Helion energy fusion project had another $2 million in funds and Made Research Progress

Helion Energy Fusion Engine has received about $7 million in funds from DOE, the Department of Defense and NASA. The company hopes to raise another $2 million by next year, $35 million in 2015-17, and $200 million for its pilot plant stage.

The Fusion Engine is a cyclically operating fusion power plant technology that will be capable of clean energy generation for base load and on-demand power.

The Fusion Engine is a 28-meter long, 3-meter high bow tie-shaped device that at both ends converts gases of deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) into plasmoids – plasma contained by a magnetic field through a process called FRC (field-reversed configuration). It magnetically accelerates the plasmoids down long tapered tubes until they collide and compress in a central chamber wrapped by a magnetic coil that induces them to combine into helium atoms. The process also releases neutrons.

The Fusion Engine provides energy in two ways. Like in a fission reactor, the energy of the scattered neutrons gives off heat that ultimately drives a turbine. Helion is also developing a technique that directly converts energy to electricity. The direct conversion will provide about 70 percent of the outgoing electricity according to Kirtley.

Helion Energy new plan is to build a 50-MWe pilot of its “Fusion Engine” by 2019 after which licensees will begin building commercial models by 2022.

In 2011, Helion Energy had about $5 million in funding. So it appears that Helion Energy had gotten grants or funding worth another $2 million.

Instead of raising $20 million they are looking to raise $2 million and then $35 million.

The Helion Energy website is unavailable now. The MSNW LLC (sister company to Helion Energy working on Space fusion) does refer to the Helion Energy work

Helion Energy Research Progress

A fusion chamber also requires durable materials – doubly so since neutrons bombard the inside walls, severely testing their durability (except for in a process called “aneutronic fusion,” but more on that another time). Therein lies one of the main crossover points between fission and fusion development. Both are looking for materials that can handle high energy neutron bombardment and high temperatures. Although fusion has a kinder brand image than does fission, the fact is that it sets neutrons racing about just as fission does (again, aneutronic fusion does not do this).

For Helion, this means finding the right material to line the inside of the compression chamber where the plasmoids collide and release neutrons.

“This wall is exposed to high levels of radiation and high thermal load,” notes Kirtley. Helion is considering alloys including tungsten, beryllia and molybdenum. These materials will be familiar to engineers and scientists working on high temperature fission reactors. As Kirtley notes, “the tungsten alloy claddings in high-temperature reactors absolutely share material crossover.” Helion’s collaborators on so-called “first wall” development include the U.S. Department of Defense and the University of Washington, he says.

Helion Energy has devised a technique that allows for “rapid replacement” of the wall, a breakthrough that Kirtley describes as “one of the key advantages” of the Fusion Engine. “We believe it is key to the engineering design of an economically feasible fusion energy system,” he says.

In Helion’s Fusion Engine, a coolant material will form a blanket that absorbs the neutrons and their heat after the neutrons escape through the wall. As is the case with some fission research companies, Helion is not yet sure what coolant it will use, although its preference is FLiBe – a molten salt of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride. The MSR reactor community will recognize FLiBe as one of the fluids that can serve as both a coolant blanket and a fuel carrier in an MSR. It is the substance that lends its name to Flibe Energy, the Hunstville, Ala. company that is developing a two-fluid FLiBe-based MSR.

Helion is also considering using lithium as the blanket coolant. Lithium is a common choice in fusion designs because it reacts with the neutrons to make tritium. Of the two hydrogen istopes commonly used in fusion – deuterium and tritium – tritium is the more difficult to obtain (deuterium is found commonly in seawater), so a process that replenishes tritium via interaction with lithium is a popular design among fusion engineers. Kirtley claims that Helion’s fusion process requires less tritium than do other fusion technologies and that the Fusion Engine makes some of its required tritium by fusing deuterium atoms in the collision.

“Our reactor design removes the majority of the complex tritium producing blanket,” says Kirtley.

Thus Helion has less need to breed tritium from lithium and it is therefore looking seriously at FLiBe, which is a more effective, less expensive and less problematic coolant than lithium, he notes.

FLiBe might serve a second purpose on Helion’s Fusion Engine as well. Kirtley says the company wants to use it to provide electrical insulation to the electromagnets. By using FLiBe for that function as well as for the coolant blanket, Helion would simplify its materials needs and lower its costs, he notes.

Helion’s design comes from company co-founder John Slough, who is also a research associate professor at the University of Washington and who runs Redmond-based space propulsion firm MSNW LLC.

Slough is a fusion enthusiast, to say the least. He is designing a separate fusion reactor intended as a propulsion device that in principle could send manned spacecraft to Mars in 30 days. That project known as the Fusion Driven Rocket, has funding from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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