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Sheared-Flow-Stabilized Z-Pinch, Simplifying Fusion Energy

A Bold New Look at a Long-Standing Technology

March 8th, 2023 - Tony Gerillo, Managing Editor, Fusion Energy News Internationl

What does fusion energy take to work? So far, the big announcements have been that either it takes enough electric power to strike up 192 of the most powerful lasers on the planet (ICF) or achieve plasma temperatures 10 times hotter than the sun, contained in a vacuum tight bottle by superconducting magnets (MCF). Both are considered viable for producing clean, abundant energy. What if the process could be simplified?


Zap Energy, a company near Seattle, Washington, USA, has further developed and improved the long-standing Z-Pinch fusion energy technology with shear-flow-stabilizing.


Zap Energy was founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Benj Conway, plasma scientist Uri Shumlak, and fusion technologist Brian A. Nelson, based on research Shumlak and Nelson pioneered at the University of Washington. Ryan Umstattd is the VP of Product at Zap Energy and previously the Director of Tech-to-Market for the Fusion Industry Association. We wanted to know more about bringing Zap Energy’s shear-flow z-pinch to the energy market and if there are other technologies that will spin-off of their developments.

Tony Gerillo, editor at Fusion Energy News International discusses Z-Pinch with Ryan Umstattd to clarify what Zap Energy is doing to develop and commercialize Z-Pinch and bring us a fusion powered world.

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Left to right:

Brian Nelson - CTO

Benj Conway - President & Co-founder

Uri Shumlak - Chief Scientist, Co-Founder                           & Board Member

Q & A with Ryan Umstaddt Vice President of Product at Zap Energy

and Tony Gerillo, Editor of Fusion Energy News International.


Hi Ryan, thank you for your time to describe the efforts being made to bring Zap Energy’s programs online.


The shear flow reactor is a version of magnetic confinement fusion but does not require the high temperature superconducting magnets or cryogenics such as those used in tokamak reactors. Can you explain how the Z-pinch contains the fusion plasma within the reactor chamber?



Thanks, Tony. I’m glad to tell you more about what we’re up to at Zap Energy


The idea of a Z-pinch comes from the fact that any electric current moving through a conductor, creates a magnetic field around it. Many people might remember the “right hand rule” from physics class that describes how electric current moving through a wire generates magnetic fields and vice-versa. In our case we treat a line of plasma as our “wire.” By putting a powerful burst of current through it, the self-generated magnetic field acts to pinch inward, which can contain and compress the plasma enough for fusion reactions to occur.


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Ryan Umstaddt - Zap Energy 

Vice President of Product

People actually created fusion this way back in the 1950s, but the plasmas proved to be far too short-lived to work for fusion with a net energy gain. Zap’s innovation on that old technique is the sheared-flow physics that helps stabilize the plasma for longer time periods. With that advance, we believe Z-pinch is a viable way to generate net fusion energy after all and it leads to a much simpler, more elegant and compact approach.


You will be at the ARPA-E Summit this month (March 22-24, 2023 - Washington D.C.) Your most recent ARPA-E project was to develop an electrode technology for a shear-flow Z-pinch reactor. How did you reach the development required to implement the electrode in the Zap Energy fusion reactor design?



If you think about our plasma like a bolt of lightning, the electrodes are the two places the electric current is moving between, and the plasma is the line that connects them. As you can imagine, the electrodes play a very important role in making the device work. By adjusting the geometry of the electrodes – their shapes, materials and physical locations – we can optimize our pinch plasmas to generate more fusion. The last round of funding from ARPA-E supported our work developing our current generation of electrode and we’re continuing to advance those technologies today, including work on designs that will be durable enough to handle the huge energy loads radiating from the core of our future devices.

Scott Hsu - Senior Advisor, Lead Fusion Coordinator

Office of the Under Secretary for Science & Innovation

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What were some of the other benefits that came out of the ARPA-E program?



ARPA-E is focused on energy research that has the potential for high rewards and commercial appeal. Most of the fusion resources and attention over the past few decades were focused on a relatively small set of projects, but ARPA-E recognized that there are a lot of good, credible approaches to fusion that have been underexplored and could be game-changers. That created the benefit of diversifying the federal portfolio of funded projects, in a way creating the chance to take more shots on goal. SFS Z-pinch fusion is a non-status-quo approach, but it’s grounded in a strong scientific track record, and could be transformative, so ARPA-E was a perfect partner for the pre-commercial phase.


This idea started with Uri Shumlak in the 90’s at the University of Washington. Zap Energy was a product of several experimental programs culminating with FuZE, the Fusion Z-Pinch Experiment. Zap Energy was founded in 2017 as a spin-off of the research team at UW collaborating with researchers from Lawrence Livermore Labs (LLNL).  What is it like to move a fusion program from pure R & D to commercialization? Was it the goal of the research at UW to be a commercial power provider? What other goals were achieved from those experiments?



It’s been quite a journey for many members of our team, Uri and Brian in particular. The funding for their first SFS Z-pinch device, ZaP, happened all the way back in 1998 and for many years it was a small, dedicated group of students and staff researchers that worked on making steady progress. We’ve scaled up quickly, particularly since Zap’s Series B in 2021, and recently hired our 100th team member, so things have really accelerated.


Many members of our team have been collaborators for years, but our new hires are bringing fresh energy and ideas, so the atmosphere is energized and exciting. Especially right now, as we’re doing completely new physics in a new regime with FuZE-Q, every day yields new insights and advances.


Z pinches have always been a very appealing way to generate fusion energy, so it’s long been the founders’ hope that they’d get a chance to apply them to society’s benefit. Now it’s the whole company’s goal and we’re on our way.

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Zap Energy's major private funding partners, along with ARPA-E and the U.S. Department of Energy


One of the key elements of shear-flow z-pinch is it’s simplicity and size. It’s modular, scalable and can be placed within populated areas without radiation or meltdown risks. Can you tell us how you got to this point and what that simplicity means to the future of energy?



The simplicity at the core plasma physics really does lead to benefits everywhere downstream. By avoiding big, powerful, energy-intensive magnets and lasers, you have a chance to make a device that’s smaller, has less system complexities to overcome, and will ultimately have more appealing economics. Last year NIF showed that there’s nothing magical or impossible about scientific breakeven, now the focus needs to be on building devices that are efficient enough to not just net useful amounts of energy, but also provide cost-competitive power. We like to say that viable commercial fusion energy is the Everest summit, everything else is part of the climb.


The liquid metal walls have a considerable function to support. Can you describe that technology and some of the other technical challenges you are facing?



That’s right. Deuterium-tritium fusion generates energy primarily in the form of radiating neutrons, and any fusion device based on D-T has to design a way to capture those neutrons and convert them into useful energy. In our case, our plan is to use a flowing wall of liquid metal that enters the device, gets bombarded by fusion neutrons, and leaves with extra heat that can be used to drive a steam cycle. We’re also planning to have that metal act as one of our electrodes and create radiation shielding. Finally, by putting some lithium in the wall, it will be used to actually produce the small amounts of tritium needed as fuel since tritium isn’t otherwise naturally occurring. Using a circulating liquid metal means you can replenish the wall without needing to stop the device or replace parts, so that should lead to better maintenance and uptimes


AJ Kantor, CoS of Zap Energy: video describes and presents

Zap Energy's Magnetic Confinement Z-Pinch Fusion Energy


There are fusion energy start-up companies developing partnerships with regional power companies to get prepared for the transition to fusion power. What kind of partnerships or programs is Zap Energy developing for the transition?



Energy markets are unique and can vary a lot by region and provider. Even if our first plant won’t be ready to start operating for several years, we know we need to be planning and preparing now. Today we’re a technology R&D company, but in the near future we’ll be an energy company. Having a good road map to get us there is a big part of my role at Zap. One of our investors, Energy Impact Partners, has deep ties into utility-scale generation and has been a great benefit in this area.


As one example, we’re currently doing a study with support from TransAlta to consider how fusion might fit in a retired coal or natural gas plant. The chance to re-capture some of the infrastructure, workforce and other aspects of legacy energy plants has enormous appeal, plus it’s informative to consider existing technology, architecture and safety/regulatory frameworks as we design our systems.


Fusion Power in Centralia? Startup Company Zap Energy Holds Presentation at TransAlta Plant 


Images Credit to The Chronicle


The Fusion Industry Association (FIA) is a non-profit organization that advocates development of commercial fusion. What are the benefits of being a part of the FIA?


Those of us in the FIA recognize there are certain areas, such as regulatory development, workforce development and government affairs, where it’s valuable for the industry to have a concerted and consistent voice. We have different ideas about the best technologies to commercialize fusion, but we all agree that we’ll need things like a right-sized regulatory framework and a well-educated public if we’re going to make fusion a reality as fast as possible.


The bottom line is that commercial fusion isn’t a small, niche industry anymore and entities like the FIA and Fusion Energy News International are a result of that. Fusion is an exciting technology, but history has shown us how challenging it is too so it’s great to see so much growth in these efforts. We need as many people as possible helping support it. 

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Climate Action is a driving factor for “fusion to the grid” now. Several companies have publicly stated that they will be able to put fusion to the grid by the early 2030s.  What is Zap Energy’s plan for reaching grid level power?



Without question, we absolutely have to stay focused on speed and urgency. We believe we will be able to put our first fusion energy on the grid by 2030 and both the planet and society are counting on it. Without giving away too much of our plan, we essentially need to keep our eyes on the finish line. We need to keep scaling our plasmas up to power-plant relevant gains while simultaneously developing, testing and integrating all of our auxiliary systems. We’ve got a path to de-risk our requirements and we know we’ll need to be flexible and iterate quickly along the way. With a smaller, simpler device we have the ability to do just that. The coming years will be exciting so we hope people will follow along.


We would like to thank Ryan Umstaddt and the entire team at Zap Energy. Their open candor and considerable efforts have made the article an education and adventure.


Z-Pinch is one of the earliest fusion experiments. Since that time the world has been introduced to new materials, processes and technologies that have allowed Zap Energy and the entire industry to move fusion energy forward. The Zap Energy Shear-Flow-Stabilized Z-Pinch fusion technology takes Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF) in a more simple and truly elegant direction.


Looking at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the industry has brought down the size and is shortening the time to commercial fusion power. Now with the S-F-S Z-Pinch, Zap Energy is simplifying the reactor. Smaller, modular, and less complicated reactors will be the future of energy.


Zap Energy joins the short list of fusion energy technology companies that have publicly committed to being able to provide “power to the grid” from fusion energy by the early 2030s or sooner.


Fusion Energy News International congratulates Zap Energy on their achievements. We look forward to their next great step forward toward a clean, green, safe, affordable and abundant energy future.

Data, information and opinions provided by Zap Energy are not necessarily the opinions or positions of FENi. FENi is not responsible for Zap Energy provided content. This is not an endorsement.

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