ARPA-E is making up to $30 million in funding available (DE-FOA-0001184) for
Accelerating Low-cost Plasma Heating and Assembly (ALPHA)
ALPHA seeks to support innovative R&D on low-cost tools to aid in the future development of fusion power.
An ARPA-E program seeks to develop and demonstrate low-cost tools to aid in the development of fusion power, with a focus on approaches to produce thermonuclear plasmas in the final density range of 10^18-10^23 ions per cubic centimeter. The program goal is to create a toolset that will allow a significant reduction in facilities costs for fusion development and to enable rapid learning through a high shot rate at a low cost-per-shot.
Fusion has been pursued for decades because it is perhaps the ideal power source, with abundant fuel, effectively zero emissions, manageable waste, and minimal proliferation risk. Significant resources have been devoted to fusion research in the US and internationally. To date, the largest fusion research efforts have focused on magnetic confinement of plasmas at densities of approximately 10^14 ions per cubic cm and on inertial confinement of plasmas at densities exceeding 10^25 ions per cubic cm. Advances in scientific understanding and engineering of high energy density plasmas resulting from these research campaigns have been remarkable, but the ultimate goal of self-sustaining, controlled, thermonuclear fusion remains elusive. This reflects the extraordinary technical challenges of high energy plasma physics, which are compounded by the high cost of fusion research. In this FOA, ARPA-E pursues focused investments to develop tools for fusion approaches in the intermediate density regime, between 10^18 -10^23 ions per cubic cm.
This intermediate density regime has been highlighted in recent analyses as a potential low-cost route to fusion power, and because it sits between the operating densities of pure magnetic confinement and inertial confinement, developments in this regime will complement mainline fusion programs.
A key motivation for this program is to address some of the practical challenges that have slowed progress in fusion research. In addition to the unique scientific challenges of producing a thermonuclear plasma, there are two major, interrelated, practical challenges that make progress in fusion research especially difficult: (1) fusion research facilities have significant capital costs and (2) the shot rate, or number of experiments per day, at existing fusion research facilities is limited by high operating costs and low equipment repetition rate. As a result, there is a transformational opportunity for low cost development and rapid learning enabled by investment in new tools for fusion research. First, recent analyses suggest low-cost pathways to fusion in the intermediate density regime and recent experimental work, though preliminary, lends support to this analysis. Second, improving the shot rate and reducing the cost of shots should directly improve the learning rate and speed progress along new fusion learning curves. To create low-cost tools with improved shot rate, ARPA-E seeks to leverage recent innovations in several areas: pulsed power; MEMS particle acceleration; plasma formation, plasma acceleration, and liner technologies; and other areas. By funding the development of low-cost tools capable of high shot rates, ARPA-E seeks to open the field of fusion research to a broader range of approaches by a variety of institutions, both public and private, thereby facilitating more rapid progress along new learning curves towards economical fusion power.
The Department of Energy and others have made previous investments into intermediate density fusion experiments, including work over the past decade on magneto-inertial fusion (MIF, or alternatively magnetized target fusion, MTF). While many MIF/MTF approaches fall in the density range of interest for this program, this program’s technical goals and anticipated research tool development differ from previous efforts. Principally, this program focuses on technologies that can achieve a high shot rate at low cost, with the goal of enabling rapid experimentation and learning in intermediate density regimes both within the program and in future research. This focus distinguishes the current program from previous work exploring intermediate density plasmas, much of which has focused on solid liner implosions.
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