Sheared-flow-stabilized Z-pinch fusion doesn’t require magnets, cryogenics or high-powered lasers.
Zap Energy’s approach permits rapid device iteration. That difference will ensure fusion energy gets to market on a timescale that matters.
In 1905, two Australian scientists confronted a mystery: A lightning rod from a kerosene refinery had been crushed and twisted, as if gripped by some phenomenal force. The culprit was a bolt of lightning, whose strike created a magnetic field so powerful that the hollow metal rod crumpled inward like cardboard. It was a stark demonstration of what’s now called the pinch effect, or Z pinch — an electromagnetic phenomenon that enabled the earliest experiments in fusion and revealed the most promising path to building a working fusion generator today.
The key to unlocking fusion energy is overcoming the forces that repel the nuclei at the centers of atoms. At extremely high temperatures and pressures, these nuclei get close enough to join together, or fuse, giving fusion its name.
That means fusion is the opposite of fission, which splits atoms apart, leaving radioactive waste behind that lasts for generations. Instead, it’s the process that fuels stars, balls of hot plasma so massive that their gravity creates enough heat and pressure for fusion, radiating huge amounts of energy into space. Here on Earth, Zap Energy’s technology uses the science of the Z pinch to create the conditions for fusion.
Z-pinch fusion holds the potential to provide clean, long-lasting energy for humanity, without the expensive, problematic magnets required by traditional approaches to fusion. But the intense repelling forces in a teeming hot plasma make it hard to confine them together for more than an instant — much less sustain plasmas for long enough to create meaningful amounts of fusion energy.
While Z-pinch fusion was tested as far back as the 1950s, researchers were stymied by how quickly the plasmas fizzled out. Zap Energy solves that problem through sheared-flow stabilization — a plasma physics innovation that can theoretically extend the lifetime of a Z-pinched plasma almost indefinitely.
Each Zap core is part accelerator, part reaction chamber— a scientifically-architected device developed to be at the heart of a Zap Energy plant. During two decades in Shumlak’s lab at the University of Washington, a series of lower energy cores proved that sheared-flow-stabilized Z-pinch fusion works.
When it comes to creating a commercial power plant, Zap Energy’s underlying technology offers major advantages. There’s no need for the giant facilities, superconducting magnets or high-powered lasers that other methods use. That means Zap Energy can be much smaller and more efficient, crucial attributes for the cost-effective, scalable systems needed to provide cheap energy and compete with other energy sources.
In order to get fusion on the grid as fast as possible, Zap Energy’s engineers are already developing and testing the auxiliary systems that will turn Z-pinch fusion into usable energy for society.