Zap Energy plans to upgrade coal-fired power plant’s fusion reactor

A new study by US-based Zap Energy will assess the feasibility of setting up a pilot Zap fusion power plant at Washington’s only remaining coal-fired power plant. Zap Energy said it would study the potential benefits of transitioning from a natural gas-fired power plant to a one-of-a-kind smelter pilot plant.

“As a small, safe and emission-free technology, a Zap Energy fusion power plant will be able to serve a wide variety of locations, from a large urban area to a remote outpost. A tantalizing prospect is the possibility of retrofitting the infrastructure of coal and other fossil fuel power plants with the cores of Zap’s fusion power reactors.

A new $1 million grant from the Centralia Coal Transition Board (CCTB) will support the first major effort to explore this scenario. Leveraging matching funding from Zap Energy, a team of fusion energy and power plant operations experts will undertake a detailed feasibility study to determine if a site at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford Power Plant, the only Washington’s remaining coal-fired power plant, could host a first-of-its-kind Z-pinch fusion pilot plant.

“Given our home is in Washington State, when we started thinking about where we might locate our first factory, it made sense to look for a natural fit locally,” said Ryan Umstattd, vice -President of Products at Zap Energy. “Centralia’s site has been found to offer several unique advantages.”

In 2011, Washington State passed legislation to completely phase out coal power. As a result, TransAlta agreed to transition the Centralia facility out of coal, with the first unit retiring at the end of 2020 and the second unit at the end of 2025. TransAlta implemented the transition grants coal from Centralia to help fund projects that support the community’s transition. and to fund technologies that create energy, improve air quality, or provide other environmental benefits to the state.

“Many exciting ideas have been proposed and we are excited to work with companies like Zap Energy to explore and build the foundations that could bring the next generation of jobs and innovation to the economy,” said Mickey Dreher, President of TransAlta US.

Fusion experts from Zap Energy recently visited the fusion feasibility study site at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford plant. Locating a smelter on the site of a former fossil fuel plant like this could reduce costs by reusing existing transmission lines, cooling ponds and other infrastructure. The project will directly investigate a substation at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford Generating Station that was previously used to generate electricity from natural gas. Since a single Zap Energy reactor and first demonstration plant would be relatively small, the team determined that the site could be about the right size and that its existing power and cooling infrastructure are potential targets. of reuse.

Zap Energy’s systems are designed to be modular, and any eventual commercial-scale plant would likely include multiple reactors in the same plant to maximize the economics of a given site.

In addition to studying the engineering design of a plant, the project will also review preliminary environmental and safety assessments and conduct outreach activities to obtain feedback from Lewis County community stakeholders, including educational sessions. to provide an opportunity to better understand what this might mean for the community and the state.

“Building a pilot plant means more than a good set of architectural drawings,” Umstattd noted. “To be the first to bring fusion to the grid, we need the support of regulators, policymakers and people in Lewis County who are motivated to help lead the global transition to a new energy source.” The team emphasized that the feasibility study is merely a preliminary assessment and not a commitment to a specific site for Zap Energy’s first plant.

“Thanks to the presentations made for us by Energy Impact Partners, an early investor in Zap Energy, the collaboration between Zap and TransAlta is going to be extremely beneficial to the pace of our progress,” Umstattd said. “Working with an established owner and operator of power plants in our geographic region is going to be great in building our knowledge base and laying the foundation for commercially viable fusion energy.”

Zap Energy is building a low-cost, compact, and scalable fusion energy platform that confines and compresses plasma without the need for expensive and complex magnetic coils. Zap Energy said its shear-flow stabilized Z-pinch technology offers the shortest potential path to commercially viable fusion and requires orders of magnitude less capital than traditional approaches.

In Z-pinch fusion, a line of plasma carrying electric current generates its own magnetic field which “pinches” the plasma until it is hot and dense enough for fusion to occur. The concept has been in development since the end of the 1940s, but the control of plasma instabilities has limited its progress. Zap Energy’s approach is based on stabilizing shear flow to confine and compress the plasma, then maintain it by removing instabilities.

Plasma temperature and density are dependent on the current used to make the Z-pinch and Zap Energy’s goal is to move towards higher and higher currents, with 500kA reached so far but around 650kA needed to reach the energy break-even point. Above this, the energy gain increases and, for example, at 1MA it should reach a factor of ten, while 1.5MA and more are needed for commercial operations. Zap Energy reached the 500 kA level in 2021 and has since advanced its next fourth-generation platform, FuZE-Q, which is destined to be able to reach the energy break-even point.

Image: Zap Energy fusion experts at the merger feasibility study site at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford plant (courtesy Zap Energy)