Cruisin' for Nonconventional Fusion with ARPA-E

At ARPA-E, we’re constantly thinking about what new white spaces we can explore in our mission to change how Americans get, use, and store energy. One key tool that we use to help design exciting focused programs is to issue periodic Requests for Information, or RFIs, which ask the research community to submit to us their best ideas for how we can have maximum impact on a specific technical space. RFIs help our Program Directors’ (PDs) build out their ideas.  A robust conversation in response to an RFI better enables PDs to flesh out and expand on how they’re thinking of addressing a challenge. It better informs the scope of potential new programs and enables the research community to provide input, so that we can cast as wide a net as possible when designing new programs.

Our newest RFI, released on March 17, 2021, seeks input on technologies for Nonconventional Fusion Approaches and Energy Applications (download the RFI at ARPA-E eXCHANGE). And in a first for ARPA-E, we’re using an online platform called Polyplexus to help facilitate the conversation – more on that later.

Current worldwide efforts in fusion research and development (R&D) focus on thermonuclear approaches using deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel. Thermonuclear D-T approaches appear to have the most likely path to demonstrating net energy gain, and D-T has the highest thermal fusion reactivity at the lowest required temperatures of all known fusion reactions. ARPA-E’s existing fusion programs, ALPHA, BETHE, and GAMOW, have focused on pathways to enable timely, commercially viable thermonuclear D-T fusion energy. There are still plenty of potential challenges in cost, regulations, and public acceptance, in addition to the remaining physics of achieving and sustaining high energy gain through thermonuclear D-T fusion. These challenges are why our latest RFI seeks input from the R&D community on nonconventional fusion approaches other than thermonuclear D-T, and also input on potential energy-related applications, other than grid-scale electricity, for fusion or its enabling technologies.

We asked Program Director Dr. Scott Hsu to tell us a little bit more about what he’s looking for in the RFI:

Tell us a bit more about this Request for Information. What prompted exploring this space in fusion energy R&D?

As described above, most of the worldwide attention in fusion-energy R&D is justifiably focused on thermonuclear D-T fusion, which is on the cusp of demonstrating net energy breakeven, i.e., fusion’s “Kitty Hawk moment.” Yet, many researchers continue to envision and chase futuristic versions of fusion that generate nearly no radioactivity or might even someday power flying cars like in the 1985 film Back to the Future. There is presently no formal federal program or support for these potentially civilization-altering versions of fusion. This is just the type of high-risk, potentially high-impact energy research motivating the original creation of ARPA-E in the first place, i.e., to change the way the world generates and uses energy and to maintain and further strengthen U.S. technological leadership. Not only can nonconventional approaches to fusion help spread and mitigate the overall risk of fusion development, but they could potentially lead to untold new uses and markets for fusion beyond grid-scale electricity, which as you may have noticed is also a topic of this RFI!

Use of the Polyplexus platform for program development is new for ARPA-E, and new in the agency's RFI process. Why are you using this, and what can users expect differently here than with the normal RFI process?

Polyplexus, which looks like an online chat forum but requires a credible citation for every post, grew out of DARPA funding to explore ways to accelerate collaboration, hypothesis development, sponsor engagement, and both project and program ideation. When I noticed about a year and a half ago that DARPA was using Polyplexus as a platform for their own program development, I thought it was a no-brainer that ARPA-E should try it out as well, especially given that ARPA-E was modeled after DARPA. The main difference between this RFI and past ARPA-E RFIs is that we’re using the Polyplexus platform as an ADDITIONAL resource to our existing RFI submission process through ARPA-E eXCHANGE. This is a pilot-program for ARPA-E and we’re trying something new, but we also don’t want to alienate anyone used to our traditional process by forcing them to use an unfamiliar platform. However, we encourage you to give the Polyplexus platform a try, to help us see if it could accelerate the program-development process at ARPA-E.

Is there anything else you want to share with or highlight to potential participants in this RFI process?

The RFI itself has just opened with traditional written responses due on April 30, 2021. An associated Polyplexus “incubator” will run from March 17 to April 7, 2021. Additionally, I and members of the ARPA-E fusion team will be holding an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) session on the Polyplexus platform on March 26, 2021 from 1:00 to 3:00 PM EDT, when I’ll look forward to engaging live with the R&D community to explore, discuss, and focus down on the most promising ideas in nonconventional fusion approaches and energy-related markets. Please think BIG!

More information on all of ARPA-E’s current funding opportunities and Requests for Information can be found on ARPA-E eXCHANGE.