Orbitron, the lunchbox-sized reactor to bring nuclear fusion to your home
Nuclear fusion, the hope for a future energy consumption without pollution, is so far a large-scale international research. ITER in Europe occupies just over 180 hectares and Spain will also host a large-scale project in Granada. Titanic dimensions against which competes a small startup of about 10 employees in Seattle, whose laboratory is developing a nuclear fusion reactor “no bigger than a lunchbox” with technology that can be found in any home.
Meanwhile, scientists are still pursuing to generate more energy than is needed to create nuclear fusion, known as net energy or positive output, and at smaller and smaller sites. The founders of Avalanche Energy have set a goal as difficult as it is small to bring this clean energy to every home, business or rocket.
Robin Langtry and Brian Riordan, two former engineers at Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, decided to stop staring into space to help protect the Earth with Orbitron their small fusion reactor in development. “We know we won’t fix the climate with existing technology or by simply creating a working fusion generator. The only option is to create technology that is cleaner, cheaper, more mobile, more flexible, more energy dense and simply better than what has been created so far” says the company.
A fusion reaction does not release greenhouse gases and, unlike nuclear fission, does not produce long-lived radioactive waste. Moreover, the elements needed are very abundant on earth, but it is not yet ready to reach homes and retire fission and other energy sources, however renewable they may be.
Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two nuclei of light atoms, usually hydrogen and its isotopes (deuterium and tritium), join together to form a heavier nucleus and release energy. This is what happens in the Sun when, as the hydrogen nuclei fuse, helium is formed, releasing a large amount of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, which living beings perceive on Earth in the form of light and heat.
But this fusion is not easy to produce, let alone do so in a controlled manner. “We are pursuing the holy grail of clean energy on a scale only seen in science fiction,” Avalanche Energy officials acknowledge on their website. To achieve this, the force of attraction of the two nuclei to be joined must overcome the forces of electrostatic repulsion that keep them at a safe distance.
Hence, so far, large-scale projects have been undertaken underground with powerful magnets, lasers and high temperatures. But if this large-scale technology still has problems to be solved, it is even more surprising that we are talking about reducing its size to a device that could be defined as portable.
Avalanche Energy’s proposal focuses on creating an energy source that can power small electronic equipment, such as cars in a parking lot or household appliances in a house. Its modular design offers the possibility of generating only the energy that is needed, between 5 kW and 15 kW. In this way, it can be used at home to run household appliances or used in a parking lot to charge several electric cars.
It would also be possible to group a large number of these mini-reactors to produce clean energy on a megawatt scale, moving away from home use to more powerful targets. They have even received a grant from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit to use their technology in a prototype fusion engine that will serve as a space propellant.
How does Orbitron work?
In order to squeeze a ‘small sun’ into a reactor of this size, the engineers come up with a new way to create nuclear fusion without relying on huge magnets or lasers or high temperatures. Instead, they start from the basis of an electrostatic fusion reactor designed by Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Tom McGuire.
Inside Orbitron, cannons hurl deuterium ions (isotopes of hydrogen) at high speed into a trap. The ions are trapped in an electrostatic field right in the reactor core. To produce the plasma, a high-voltage generator recreates the necessary conditions. In this environment, the ions orbit, collide and fuse, releasing energy.
In addition to its small size and possible domestic use, another surprising aspect of this project is the use of more common equipment. Avalanche Energy employs in this process an electron confinement technique that would be found in microwave ovens used daily in homes.
Similarly, electrostatic technology for trapping ions is commonly used in commercial mass spectrometry, a device that allows the composition of different chemical elements to be analyzed with great precision. In short, two existing, low-cost electronic devices have found a new field where they can be of great use.
The project is still in an initial phase, overcoming obstacles and challenges step by step. Since its beginnings in 2018, they have advanced cautiously in the research to develop this technology, in 2021 they opened their facilities in Seattle and in March 2022 they managed to generate their first neutrons by fusion.
Even so, “it is still a research project,” as Langtry and Riordan explained in an interview for GeekWire. Right now they plan to add magnets to the system to create a higher-density reactor capable of producing more energy.
Their biggest challenge will be to create a high enough voltage, on the order of 600,000 volts, in such a small space to make it work. To give you an idea, a combustion car battery is around 12 volts and a household current is 220 volts.