OpenStar Technologies: How Cryogenics Enables Next Generation Nuclear Fusion Research
OpenStar Technologies is a highly ambitious start-up that seeks to master fusion — the process that powers the stars. Once this process is mastered, they’ll be able to create safe, clean, carbon-free, base-load electricity in a way that is economically scalable, to help find a solution to the climate crisis.
Cryogenic temperatures are critical in maintaining a superconducting environment, and our Cryomech AL630 Gifford-McMahon Cryocooler is used to cool the superconducting magnets in these next generation fusion reactors.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
Unlike fission — the process of splitting atoms to create energy that is currently used in nuclear power facilities — nuclear fusion is the process of combining or fusing light atomic nuclei, such as hydrogen isotopes, to make new, heavier elements.
Given the right fuel, fusion releases enormous amounts of energy, 3-4 times greater than that generated by fission.
While fusion sounds complicated, it requires only three specific ‘ingredients’:
- Fuel density: Enough fuel in one place and concentrated enough to react.
- Temperature: The fuel must be hot enough so that each atom can react.
- Heat retention: Once burning, the fuel must stay hot long enough for the reaction to continue.
Every star in the night sky is an example of fusion in action, generating energy visible to us as light from across the universe. Similarly, the fusion taking place in our own sun generates the sunlight that sustains life here on Earth.
Levitated Dipole Reactor (LDR)
OpenStar’s key differentiator compared to other fusion companies can be found in their reactor design. The traditional approach to controlled fusion utilizes a device called a tokamak.
Tokamaks consist of large superconducting magnets which act to confine extremely high-temperature plasma in a donut shape in the center of the magnets. However, OpenStar uses a Levitated Dipole Reactor (LDR); essentially the “geometric inverse” of a tokamak.
The geometry of an LDR gives it a plethora of benefits from a plasma physics perspective. Tokamak reactors confine the plasma within a large, complex magnet while in an LDR the magnet is surrounded by the plasma which reduces magnet costs and complexity significantly. OpenStar believes this gives them a competitive advantage over the mainstream approach taken by other private fusion companies.
Fusion Enabling Technology
Fusion reactions are difficult to sustain for long periods of time because of the huge amounts of pressure and temperature needed to fuse the nuclei. OpenStar’s advances are largely possible thanks to advances in high temperature superconducting (HTS) materials, magnets, and power supplies.
HTS materials, in particular REBCO wire, are now mature enough to build fusion scale magnets to confine the fusion fuel, a technological leap being exploited by several other firms. OpenStar is positioned to leverage the incredible advances currently occurring in the HTS space, and OpenStar’s approach and application of these technologies is unique due to their innovative levitated dipole design.
Why is Nuclear Fusion the Future?
Whereas nuclear fission produces highly radioactive waste, the byproduct of fusion is Helium – a stable and safe element that has many uses (including, of course, cryogenics). If fusion technology progresses to a commercially scalable point, it could provide limitless, clean, near carbon-zero energy for the entire planet. It would be a massive leap towards reversing climate change and saving our planet from the detrimental effects of burning fossil fuels. OpenStar is on the cutting edge of clean energy, and they are leading the charge when it comes to the impact fusion technology could have on the world.
If you are looking for cryogenic solutions for your fusion magnets, be sure to check out our Cryomech Gifford-McMahon Cryocoolers.
Featured image: OpenStar Technologies team with the vacuum chamber of the LDR. Photo: OpenStar Technologies.