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Centralized Generation

Accelerating Low-Cost Plasma Heating and Assembly

Fusion energy holds the promise of cheap, clean power production, but up to now scientists have been unable to successfully harness fusion as a power source due to complex scientific and technological challenges and the high cost of research. ARPA-E's ALPHA program seeks to create and demonstrate tools to aid in the development of new, lower-cost pathways to fusion power and to enable more rapid progress in fusion research and development.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here.  

Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets

Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets (GEMINA) aims to develop digital twin technology for advanced nuclear reactors and transform operations and maintenance (O&M) systems in the next generation of nuclear power plants. ARPA-E is looking for interdisciplinary teams to develop digital twins, or a similar technology, for an advanced reactor design as the foundation of their O&M strategy. Performers will design tools that introduce greater flexibility in reactor systems, increased autonomy in operations, and faster design iteration. The goal is to create a 10x reduction in O&M costs at advanced reactor power plants, thereby improving their economic competitiveness. To accomplish this, teams will apply diverse technologies that are driving efficiencies in other industries, such as artificial intelligence (AI), advanced control systems, predictive maintenance, and model-based fault detection. Projects will focus on O&M solutions for the reactor core, balance of plant (BOP), or entire reactor plant system (including both the reactor core and BOP). Because advanced reactors are still in design phase, with no physical units operating, teams working on core operations will also develop cyber-physical systems that simulate advanced reactor core operating dynamics using a combination of non-nuclear experimental facilities (e.g., test or flow loops) and software. Teams will use these systems as the “real asset,” a surrogate to test their digital twin platforms.

Open Funding Solicitation

In 2009, ARPA-E issued an open call for the most revolutionary energy technologies to form the agency's inaugural program. The first open solicitation was open to ideas from all energy areas and focused on funding projects already equipped with strong research and development plans for their potentially high-impact technologies. The projects chosen received a level of financial support that could accelerate technical progress and catalyze additional investment from the private sector. After only 2 months, ARPA-E's investment in these projects catalyzed an additional $33 million in investments. In response to ARPA-E's first open solicitation, more than 3,700 concept papers flooded into the new agency, which were thoroughly reviewed by a team of 500 scientists and engineers in just 6 months. In the end, 36 projects were selected as ARPA-E's first award recipients, receiving $176 million in federal funding.
 For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here.  

Open Funding Solicitation

In 2012, ARPA-E issued its second open funding opportunity designed to catalyze transformational breakthroughs across the entire spectrum of energy technologies. ARPA-E received more than 4,000 concept papers for OPEN 2012, which hundreds of scientists and engineers thoroughly reviewed over the course of several months. In the end, ARPA-E selected 66 projects for its OPEN 2012 program, awarding them a total of $130 million in federal funding. OPEN 2012 projects cut across 11 technology areas: advanced fuels, advanced vehicle design and materials, building efficiency, carbon capture, grid modernization, renewable power, stationary power generation, water, as well as stationary, thermal, and transportation energy storage.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here.  

Applied Materials

Kerfless Crystalline-Silicon PV: Gas to Modules

Applied Materials is working with ARPA-E and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) to build a reactor that produces the silicon wafers used in solar panels at a dramatically lower cost than existing technologies. Current wafer production processes are time consuming and expensive, requiring the use of high temperatures to produce ingots from molten silicon that can be sliced into wafers for use in solar cells. This slicing process results in significant silicon waste--or "kerf loss"--much like how sawdust is created when sawing wood. With funding from ARPA-E, Applied Materials is developing a reactor where ultra-thin silicon wafers are created by depositing silicon directly from vapor onto specialized reusable surfaces, allowing a significant reduction in the amount of silicon used in the process. Since high purity silicon is one of the most significant costs in producing solar cells, this kerf-less approach could significantly reduce the overall cost of producing solar panels. Applied Materials is partnering with Suniva, who will use funds from EERE to integrate these low-cost wafers into solar cells and modules that generate low-cost electricity, and with Arizona State University, who will develop high-efficiency devices on ultra-thin kerfless substrates. This partnership could enable low-cost, domestic manufacturing of solar modules, allowing the U.S. to reduce the amount of equipment we import from other countries.

California Institute of Technology

Prototype Tools to Establish the Viability of the Adiabatic Heating and Compression Mechanisms Required for Magnetized Target Fusion

Caltech, in coordination with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), will investigate the scaling of adiabatic heating of plasma by propelling magnetized plasma jets into stationary heavy gases and/or metal walls. This is the reverse of the process that would occur in an actual fusion reactor - where a gas or metal liner would compress the plasma - but will provide experimental data to assess the magneto-inertial fusion approach. By using this alternative frame of reference, the researchers will be able to conduct experiments more frequently and at a lower cost because the experimental setup is non-destructive. The team will investigate the jet-target collision using many experiments with a wide range of parameters to determine the actual equation of state relating compression, change in magnetic field, and temperature increase. The experimental work will be supplemented with advanced 3D computer models. If successful, these results will show that compressional heating by a liner is a viable method for increasing temperatures to the levels required for magneto-inertial fusion. The study will also provide critical information on the interactions and limitations for a variety of possible driver and plasma target combinations being developed across the ALPHA program portfolio.

Foro Energy, Inc.

Low-Contact Drilling Technology to Enable Economical EGS Wells

Foro Energy is developing a unique capability and hardware system to transmit high power lasers over long distances via fiber optic cables. This laser power is integrated with a mechanical drilling bit to enable rapid and sustained penetration of hard rock formations too costly to drill with mechanical drilling bits alone. The laser energy that is directed at the rock basically softens the rock, allowing the mechanical bit to more easily remove it. Foro Energy's laser-assisted drill bits have the potential to be up to 10 times more economical than conventional hard-rock drilling technologies, making them an effective way to access the U.S. energy resources currently locked under hard rock formations.

Helion Energy Inc.

Staged Magnetic Compression of FRC Targets to Fusion Conditions

Helion Energy's team will develop a prototype device that will explore a potential low-cost path to fusion for a less expensive, simplified reactor design. In contrast to conventional designs, this prototype will be smaller than a semi-trailer - reducing cost and complexity. The smaller size is achieved by using new techniques to achieve the high temperatures and densities required for fusion. The research team will produce these conditions using field-reversed configuration (FRC) plasmas, a special form of plasma that may offer significant advantages for fusion research. FRC plasmas are movable - they can be produced at one location and then moved into the fusion chamber, which prevents the hot fusion products from damaging the FRC formation hardware. FRC plasmas also have an embedded magnetic field which helps them retain heat. Helion's reactor employs a pulsed heating technique that uses a series of magnetic coils to compress the plasma fuel to very high temperatures and densities. The reactor will also capture and reuse the magnetic energy used to heat and confine the plasma, further increasing efficiency. The smaller size and reduced complexity of the reactor's design will decrease research and development costs and speed up research progress in developing the efficiencies required for fusion power production.

HolosGen, LLC

Transportable Modular Reactor by Balance of Plant Elimination

HolosGen is developing a transportable gas-cooled nuclear reactor with load following ability. The reactor concept is essentially a closed-loop jet engine (Brayton cycle) with the typical combustor replaced by a nuclear heat source. The nuclear heat source is comprised of multiple subcritical power modules (SPMs) that only produce power when they are positioned in close proximity, allowing sufficient neutron transfer to reach criticality (steady-state). The modules will be positioned using an exoskeletal structure with fast-actuation technologies currently employed by the aviation industry. By controlling the flow of neutrons across the SPM boundaries, reactor output can be controlled. By using a closed Brayton cycle, a high-power-density engine with components connected directly to the reactor core, plant construction will be simplified and the reactor/generator can be packaged in a standard shipping container. This will make the reactor highly portable, leading to lower costs and shorter commissioning times. HolosGen's reactor concept will provide low overnight cost, autonomous operations, rapid deployment, independence from environmental extremes, and easy electrical grid connection with near real-time load following capability. Under this MEITNER project, the ARPA-E/HolosGen team aims to demonstrate the viability of this concept using multi-physics modeling and simulation tools, with the thermal hydraulics validated by testing a non-nuclear simulator. The project will improve the understanding of the turbine efficiencies and the coolant flow within the nuclear reactor.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Mems Based Ion Beam Drivers for Magnetized Target Fusion

LBNL, in coordination with Cornell University, will develop a driver for magneto-inertial fusion based on ion beam technology that can be manufactured with low-cost, scalable methods. Ion beams are commonly used in research laboratories and manufacturing, but currently available technology cannot deliver the required beam intensities at low enough cost to drive an economical fusion reactor. LBNL will take advantage of microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology to develop a design consisting of thousands of mini ion "beamlets" densely packed on silicon wafers - up to thousands of beamlets per 4 to 12 inch wafer. Ions will be accelerated using radio-frequency driven accelerators, resulting in extremely high current densities and high-intensity ion beams that can be focused on plasma targets to achieve fusion. The use of MEMS technology enables low-cost batch fabrication, which could reduce the overall cost of a fusion reactor, in addition to enabling drivers that are modular and scalable. If successful, this project will result in an economical and flexible ion beam driver technology for magneto-inertial fusion reactors.

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Spherically Imploding Plasma Liners as a Standoff Magneto-Inertial-Fusion Driver

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), along with HyperV Technologies and other partners, will design and build a new driver technology that is non-destructive, allowing for more rapid experimentation and progress toward economical fusion power. The team will use a spherical array of plasma guns to produce supersonic jets that merge to create an imploding plasma liner. Because the guns are located several meters away from the fusion burn region (i.e., they constitute a "standoff driver"), the reactor components should not be damaged by repeated experiments. This will allow the team to perform more rapid experimentation, allowing them to better understand the behavior of plasma liners as they implode. If successful, the project will demonstrate the validity of this driver design, optimize the precision and performance of the plasma guns, and obtain experimental data on ram-pressure scaling and liner uniformity critical to progress toward an economical fusion reactor.

Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies, Inc.,

Staged Z-Pinch Target For Fusion

MIFTI is developing a new version of the Staged Z-Pinch (SZP) fusion concept that reduces instabilities in the fusion plasma, allowing the plasma to persist for longer periods of time. The Z-Pinch is an approach for simultaneously heating, confining, and compressing plasma by applying an intense, pulsed electrical current which generates a magnetic field. While the simplicity of the Z-Pinch is attractive, it has been plagued by plasma instabilities. MIFTI's SZP plasma target consists of two components with different atomic numbers and is specifically configured to reduce instabilities. When the heavier component collapses around the lighter part, a shock front develops that travels faster than instabilities can grow, allowing the plasma to remain stable, long enough for fusion to occur. The approach also allows researchers to perform experiments in rapid succession, since it does not involve single-use components. MIFTI's design simplifies the engineering required for fusion through its efficiency and reduced number of components.

North Carolina State University

Development of a Nearly Autonomous Management and Control System for Advanced Reactors

North Carolina State University (NC State) will develop a highly automated management and control system for advanced nuclear reactors. The system will provide operations recommendations to staff during all modes of plant operation except shutdown operations. Using an artificial-intelligence (AI) guided system enabling continuous extensive monitoring of plant status, knowledge of current component status, and plant parameter trends, the system will continuously predict near-term behavior within the plant and recommend a course of action to plant personnel. If successful, this comprehensive, knowledge-based control system for credible, consistent management of plant operations will improve safety and optimize emergency management in advanced reactors. AI-guided models trained on data from plant monitoring instruments combined with expectations generated by advanced modeling and simulation can vastly improve the effectiveness of plant diagnosis and prognosis in plant management, as well as enable vulnerability search in safety analysis. In particular, the system will greatly increase the time available before operator action is required. This means that a significantly smaller operational staff--assisted by instrumentation, operator training, and smart procedures--is needed to manage the plant, reducing overall operational cost.

NumerEx, LLC

Stabilized Liner Compressor (SLC) For Low-Cost Fusion

NumerEx will develop a Stabilized Liner Compressor (SLC) which uses a liquid metal liner for non-destructive experimentation and operation, meaning the liner implosion is quickly repeatable. The SLC uses a rotating chamber, in which liquid metal is formed into a hollow cylinder. The liquid is pushed by pistons driven by high-pressure gas, collapsing the inner surface around a target on the axis. The rotation of the liquid liner avoids instabilities that would otherwise occur during compression of the plasma. After each experiment, the liquid liner can flow back to its original position for subsequent implosion. In the NumerEx team's conceptual design for a power plant, the liquid liner acts as a blanket absorbing radiation from fusion reactions, reducing damage to the reactor hardware and creating fusion fuel for future reactor operation. Additionally, energy from the recoil of the liner and piston can be captured and reused, making the power plant design more efficient.

Sandia National Laboratory

Demonstrating Fuel Magnetization and Laser Heating Tools for Low-Cost Fusion Energy

Sandia National Laboratories will partner with the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester to investigate the behavior of the magnetized plasma under fusion conditions, using a fusion concept known as Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion (MagLIF). MagLIF uses lasers to pre-heat a magnetically insulated plasma in a metal liner and then compresses the liner to achieve fusion. The research team will conduct experiments at Sandia's large Z facility as well as Rochester's OMEGA facilities, and will collect key measurements of magnetized plasma fuel including temperature, density, and magnetic field over time. The results will help researchers improve compression and heating performance. By using the smaller OMEGA facility, researchers will be able to conduct experiments more rapidly, speeding the learning process and validating the MagLIF approach. Sandia's team will also use their experimental results to validate and expand a suite of simulation and numerical design tools to improve future fusion energy applications that employ magnetized inertial fusion concepts. This project will help accelerate the development of the MagLIF concept, and assist with the continued development of intermediate density approaches across the ALPHA program.

Swarthmore College

Plasma Accelerator on the Swarthmore Spheromak Experiment

Swarthmore College, along with its partner Bryn Mawr College, will investigate a new kind of plasma fusion target that may offer improved stability at low cost and relatively low energy input. The research team will design and develop new modules that accelerate and evolve plasmas to create elongated structures known as Taylor states, which have helical magnetic field lines resembling a rope. These Taylor state structures exhibit interesting and potentially very beneficial properties upon compression, and could be used as a fusion target if they are able to maintain their temperatures and stability long enough to be compressed to fusion conditions. The new plasma-forming modules will be tested using the team's existing Swarthmore Spheromak Experiment device (SSX), which has an advanced diagnostic suite and the capability to perform 100 experiments per day. This ability will enable rapid progress in understanding the behavior of these plasma plumes and illuminate their potential for use as new targets in the pursuit of fusion reactors.

The Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Univ. at Buffalo

Reducing Overnight Capital Cost of Advanced Reactors Using Equipment-based Seismic Protective Technologies

The University at Buffalo, the State University of New York (SUNY) will develop seismic protective systems to safeguard essential and safety-class components inside nuclear power plants. Currently, these systems and components are custom-produced for each new plant, with multiple designs often needed for a given plant. Earthquake considerations may add up to 35% to the overnight capital cost for new plant designs in regions of moderate to high seismic hazard. This project will develop and implement modular systems to protect individual components from earthquake shaking effects. Because the systems can be implemented independent of reactor type, they will simplify plant design, facilitate economical reactor construction in regions of moderate and high seismic hazard, and enable efficient seismic protection of safety-grade equipment in reactor buildings. By focusing seismic protection on components that require it, the approach can facilitate reduced thickness of walls and slabs in other parts of the plant, further saving construction time and costs.

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Enabling Load Following Capability in the Transatomic Power MSR

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) will develop a fuel processing system that enables load-following in molten salt reactors (MSRs), an important ability that allows nuclear power plants to ramp electricity production up or down to meet changing electricity demand. Nuclear reactions in MSRs produce unwanted byproducts (such as xenon and krypton) that can adversely affect power production. In steady, baseload operation, these byproducts form and decay at the same rate. When electricity production is ramped down, however, the byproducts start to be produced at a greater rate than they decay, leading to a buildup within the reactor. When power production must be once again increased, the response rate is slowed by the time needed for the byproducts to reach their equilibrium level (determined by the radioactive decay half-life, which is on the order of hours). Thus, buildup of these unwanted byproducts resulting from ramping down inhibit proper load following for molten salt reactors. Fortunately, MSRs transport fuel in a flowing molten salt fuel loop, which means that a section of the reactor, outside the core, can be leveraged for fuel processing and "cleanup." The team will determine the feasibility of removal of these unwanted byproducts and design a fuel reprocessing system, removing a major barrier to commercialization for molten salt reactors.

University of Washington

Development of a Compact Fusion Device Based on the Flow Z-Pinch

The University of Washington (UW), along with its partner Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will work to mitigate instabilities in the plasma, and thus provide more time to heat and compress it while minimizing energy loss. The team will use the Z-Pinch approach for simultaneously heating, confining, and compressing plasma by applying an intense, pulsed electrical current which generates a magnetic field. While the simplicity of the Z-Pinch is attractive, it has been plagued by plasma instabilities. UW will investigate Z-pinch fusion using sheared-flow stabilized plasmas, meaning that adjacent layers of the plasma move parallel to each other at different speeds. These sheared axial flows have been shown to stabilize Z-pinch instabilities, and the team will investigate whether this will hold true under more extreme conditions using experimental and computational studies. If successful, UW's design would simplify the engineering required for an eventual reactor through its reduced number of components and efficiency. In addition, the design's avoidance of single-use components would enable fusion research to progress faster through more rapid experimentation.

University of Washington

Development of stable magnetized target fusion (MTF) plasmas for innovative, low-cost fusion power plants

The University of Washington (UW) will develop a new approach to generate edge transport barriers (ETBs), a way to confine and retain plasma heat. Many low-cost magnetized target fusion concepts rely on plasmas having sufficient energy confinement to reach the necessary densities and temperatures required for the large-scale production of fusion power. ETBs enable higher performance (better energy confinement), and more compact fusion plasmas for mainline fusion experiments. Unfortunately, state-of-the-art ETB generation is thought to be impractical for smaller and/or pulsed plasma experiments because it requires complex external magnetic fields, current profile shaping, and heating. The University of Washington team has recently discovered a new, simpler, approach to ETB generation that may be as effective as the state-of-the art approaches. Their method is to drive the current at the edge of a plasma while applying magnetic perturbations, thus injecting a corkscrew-like motion into the plasma, producing edge velocity shear that creates an ETB. If successful, this approach would allow ETBs to be used in smaller plasma systems, an important step on the pathway to fusion energy.


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