Google teams up with nuclear fusion company in quest for limitless clean energy

Back in 2014, tech giant Google and Tri Alpha Energy (TAE), the Paul Allen-backed fusion energy startup, joined forces to harness the power of nuclear fusion and create a limitless supply of clean energy. In July of this year, they announced a significant breakthrough—the creation of an algorithm that will help researchers refine potential fusion models much more efficiently.

Here’s some background on the technology and why Google’s involvement has been so integral to TAE’s progress.


What is nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion is a different kind of reaction than what takes place in today’s nuclear power plants. Current nuclear reactors use a nuclear fission process which generates energy as atoms are pulled apart. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, uses the opposite approach, smashing the nuclei together to create energy.

Nuclear fusion isn’t currently used commercially, as the amount of energy used to start the reaction can’t be matched during the generation process, creating a loss.  However, Google’s work with TAE might change that.


Nuclear fusion and clean energy

Nuclear fusion has received renewed interest in recent years, as it has the potential to be a safe, clean, and limitless source of energy. If perfected, it could become a viable way to reduce carbon emissions and limit climate change.

While fission often involves Uranium-235, a radioactive material, fusion typically uses a plasma of Tritium and Deuterium, both of which are hydrogen isotopes. Unlike fission, nuclear fusion produces no radioactive waste and has no potential for the self-propagating chain reactions that lead to nuclear meltdowns like the Chernobyl disaster. It therefore poses far less risk while also having the potential to generate an endless amount of clean energy.


The power of Google

Google’s investment in nuclear fusion is a huge boost for fusion researchers who, despite several advancements in recent decades, have long struggled to harness the financial, political and technical support needed to make fusion power a reality. With this recent partnership, Google doesn’t just offer support through funding, but also through its team of computer scientists in Google Research.

To make a nuclear fusion reactor commercially viable, the reactor needs to achieve extremely high temperatures while also sustaining the plasma long enough to generate a controlled release of energy. And plasma physics is complicated, with a vast amount of variables at play.

Enter, the “Optometrist Algorithm”—the first major achievement to come out of Google and TAE’s partnership. By combining “machine learning” with human analysis, the algorithm is helping researchers determine which combinations of plasma-forming variables offer the most promising solutions. As a result, TAE scientists have been able to conduct experiments far more efficiently, achieving what was once a month’s worth of progress in only a few hours.


A proven success, a promising future

Over the course of the project, TAE has reduced energy losses by 50 percent and greatly increased the resulting amount of total plasma energy. Additionally, their C2-U plasma generator has been able to reach temperatures between 50 million and 70 million degrees centigrade and hold plasma in the reactor for multiple milliseconds, both of which are major milestones.

These successes have led to the creation of a new and improved plasma machine, nicknamed “Norman,” which has already achieved first plasma. The project still has a long way to go but, if Norman can produce the results TAE believes are possible, it could lead to the creation of a larger reactor that can begin contributing to the power grid.

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