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Thea Energy raises 20M Series A dollars for pixel-inspired power plants

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To build a Fusion power plantEngineers must make some difficult decisions. Do they go with the simpler design and then, while in operation, force the plasma to behave so it doesn’t snuff itself out? Or do they opt for a complex design that’s challenging to build but leads to happier plasma?

What if it was possible to do both at the same time?

Thea EnergyI hope that you will be able to attend. “both”It is the correct answer. The startup is betting on software to replace manufacturing precision in order to deliver reliable and inexpensive fusion energy. TechCrunch exclusively learned that the startup has raised a $20M Series A. Prelude Ventures led this round with participation by 11.2 Capital and Anglo American. Hitachi Ventures also participated, as did Lowercarbon Capital.

Inertial confinement and Magnetic confinement are two of the main approaches to fusion energy. The former made headlines at the end of 2022 for proving that net-positive fusion power isn’t just science fiction by using massive lasers to vaporize a fusion fuel pellet.

Many startups are still using the former. In magnetic confinement the burning plasma is contained with powerful magnetic fields generated by high temperature superconductors. Magnets are used in tokamaks – doughnut-shaped reactors that many large projects use. They must be built with extreme precision to be able contain plasma and maintain it at the correct temperature.

In stellarators, the magnets have to be even more precise, but several startups favor the design because it’s easier to achieve stable plasma in them. Tokamaks can be compared with classic raised doughnuts. I prefer to think of stellarators like old-fashioned, irregularly shaped doughnuts.

The stellarator is designed to twist and turn according to the demands made by the plasma. This is calculated in advance. The shape is due to their intentionally warped magnetics. Each magnet requires a large amount of engineering and production know-how and costs are high.

Thea Energy’s team wanted to build a stellarator, but they didn’t want to deal with all that hassle. So instead they’re using an approach developed at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory that lines a doughnut-shaped reactor with an array of high-temperature superconducting magnets each controlled by software. By extending and retracting different magnets’ fields, the array can make the plasma behave like it’s inside a more complex stellarator.

It is obvious that nothing about fusion power is simple. Fusion power is not simple. “We haven’t eliminated complexity; we haven’t eliminated precision,”Brian Berzin is the co-founder and CEO of Thea energy, he told TechCrunch. “But what we have done is we’ve taken as much of it as possible out of the hardware and pushed it onto the control systems.”

Berzin compares its planar coil stellarator to a computer screen. Each magnet is a pixel which can be individually controlled. Because they’re creating a stellarator shape, with its inherent stability, the computers controlling them won’t have to be anything exotic. “We’re talking about things that you don’t even need server clusters to run,”He said. “There is no near real-time compute that’s necessary.”

Thea believes that its approach is more effective at containing plasma than competing designs. “By an order of magnitude, better confinement,” Berzin said. “You can make a more precise stellarator than what you could have with the modular wiggly coils.”

Modularity should also speed up the development of the system. The company is now making full-scale magnates inside its Jersey City lab. By comparison, the magnets that will shape ITER’s 64-foot tokamak are assembled in a sprawling warehouse in the French countryside. Thea’s small magnets can be tested in the same lab both individually and in small arrays that mimic portions of the final design.

“We can iterate multiple generations within a year without spending an exorbitant amount of money on a single piece of hardware,” Berzin said.

Thea plans to build a 350-megawatt demonstration facility in 2030 and a smaller, pilot-scale reactor by the end of this decade. By the time its commercial offering is hooked up to the grid, it’s hoping to produce power at $50 per megawatt-hour. That’s right at the low end of where solar-plus-battery power sits today, according to Lazard. It’s marginally more expensive than a combined-cycle gas power plant today and slightly less than coal. Thea could be a very competitive power plant if it hits its target.

As with any fusion power startup, the same cautions apply: The fusion technology is incredibly difficult to master. It’s so hard that nobody has managed it at a commercial level yet. Once they do, it’ll be a matter of reining in costs so the reactors can compete with renewables and batteries, both of which continue to fall in price. There are a few ways to do that, but Thea’s approach is clever enough that it just might work. Software has been able to dominate many other industries. Why not fusion?


‘ Credit:
Original content by techcrunch.com. “Thea Energy raised $20M Series A to build pixel-inspired fusion energy plants”

Read the full article here https://techcrunch.com/2024/02/08/thea-energy-series-a/

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