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NT-Tao has raised $22 million to explore a way to generate clean energy from nuclear fusion in an efficient way.
The Israeli startup is an example of newfound excitement around nuclear fusion, which generates clean energy by fusing atoms together, in contrast to the existing nuclear energy generated by splitting atoms. And the good thing about fusion is that it doesn’t create any long-term radioactive nuclear waste.
Just last month, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported that they had successfully generated additional energy through a nuclear fusion experiment. Such promise is why dozens of startups around the world — as well as big companies and corporate labs — are raising and spending billions of dollars to try and solve the problem.
But Tel Aviv-based NT-Tao is working on something different than the Lawrence Livermore project, said Oded Gour-Lavie, CEO of NT-Tao, in an interview with VentureBeat.
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“What is important here is, first of all, the safety,” he said. “And the second important thing is the issue of clean. It’s abundant because it’s hydrogen, and it doesn’t have any nuclear waste from the fuel. And that’s an important part of why it’s so important.”
1,000 times higher density
The way to achieve fusion is by fusing atoms together, like melding two hydrogen atoms to form a helium atom. That results in the release of energy that could be used to fulfill the world’s energy needs. But it takes a lot of energy to get the fusion to happen, and sometimes the energy produced is minimal. The Lawrence Livermore project was hailed as a breakthrough because it produced energy above and beyond what was put into the process. But scaling this up could be very challenging.
Gour-Lavie uses an example of billiard balls on a table. If you have only one ball and another balls is thrown in, the likelihood of a collision is low. But if you put 10 balls on the table, the number of collisions goes way up. That means it has a higher density for collisions, which is what you want to happen.
“If you increase density by 1,000, the rate of collisions will go up by a million. And that’s, that’s a very important issue when you try to solve this fusion issue. Because what hasn’t happened yet for 80 years, is that the amount of energy coming out of fusion, which is being done since the 1940s, the amount of energy coming out is smaller than the amount of energy you’re spending in order to create those conditions.”
Gour-Lavie said that NT-Tao has come up with an ultra-fast heating technology that will scale. He said it could generate plasma at densities that are 1,000 times higher than other leading solutions. This optimal plasma regime yields a fusion reaction that is a million times stronger, resulting in significantly more efficient energy production.
While that sounds phenomenal, Gour-Lavie is being careful about promising too much. The company is still in an early stage and it is trying to build a working prototype in the next few years, and the hope is that the solution could be in production by the end of the decade.
While that sounds like a long way away, NT-Tao managed to convince investors to give it money. The company emerged from stealth last year. And with the new round, Delek US, a publicly traded energy company, and NextGear Ventures led the latest investment. Additional investors include Honda, OurCrowd and the Grantham Foundation, the lead investor in the company’s earlier seed round.
This new funding will enable NT-Tao to continue to scale its team, accelerate prototype developments in the pipeline and build its new research facility. The latest investment round brings NT-Tao’s total funding to $28 million, Gour-Lavie said.
“NT-Tao is rapidly headed towards developing a high-density, compact fusion reactor to provide the cleanest form of sustainable energy to mitigate the pending climate crisis,” said Gour-Lavie. “We’re proud to be the first Israeli fusion energy company pioneering the next generation of fusion energy to enable an era of limitless power and global energy security. With the support of industry-leading investors, NT-Tao is moving at a rapid pace of development to ensure that the commercialization of fusion energy becomes a reality.”
“We are dedicated to partnering with companies developing breakthrough technologies that will make a significant impact on the world, and NT-Tao fits perfectly into our partnership framework. We not only invested in the company, we also brought in with us top-notch global players to co-invest and open up collaboration opportunities for the company,” said Tal Cohen, managing partner at NextGear Ventures, in a statement. “Clean energy sources are an inherent and imperative component of securing a sustainable future. The compact, modular approach pioneered by NT-Tao stands out in a competitive marketplace and represents a game changer not only for the mobility sector but in how humanity will harness and democratize energy and revolutionize the world for generations to come.”
The world’s energy crisis
The growing concerns surrounding climate change, soaring energy prices, and increasing geopolitical turbulence have ignited a global urgency to mitigate energy insecurity, control rising temperatures and create a truly sustainable energy future. “When you look at the population and you look at the amount of people that do have or don’t have energy. This is something we need to solve. We need to create a source of clean energy for everyone,” he said. “It’s solves water problems. It solves the areas where you can live or not live. It solves the issues of food dispersions. People can leave because they have energy and they can create their own habitable area.”
Renewable energy sources have been acceptable stopgap solutions, however, they’re unreliable and energy dilute, making them insufficient strategies or replacements for fossil fuels in the long run, NT-Tao said. This is why the fusion energy sector has a huge valuation already, as it might be the path to clean energy.
“Humanity is spending billions on this on a national level and international level on the largest experimental projects in the world,” Gour-Lavie said.
NT-Tao is pioneering a new approach to fusion, combining the latest in advanced technologies that will provide the world with access to a compact and scalable fusion solution for all energy needs. The aim is to enable the world to transition away from conventional energy sources such as oil,natural gas, and coal and move towards fusion energy technology, which is the cleanest, most sustainable energy source and the surest path to a decarbonized future.
That’s why an estimated $5 billion has been invested in nuclear fusion startups alone.
The goal is to disrupt today’s energy sector, using different ways to achieve nuclear fusion. With fission, uranium breaks apart and throws off neutrons, and creating energy. But it runs the risk of meltdown and the leakage of deadly radioactivity.
Fusion is the opposite of fission. When you fuse atoms, you can get 1,000 times more energy than the energy you put into it to make the fusion happen. It’s what happens in the core of the sun, where the density of plasma is extremely high. But how do you heat something up to 100 million degrees on Earth?
“The rate of collisions so high that a lot of energy comes out. And here on Earth, we cannot reach those kinds of densities. And so most solutions are very much lower in density,” he said.
One way to do this is to put the hot plasma in a magnetic container in a vacuum condition.
Tokamak technology, first invented in the 1950s, is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power. Another technology is a stellarator, which also uses magnetic fields to confine plasma. Both of these machines, in the shape of a torus, or donut, can stop hot plasma from touching the walls of a container and melting it down.
In the past decade, one of the advances has been the creation of superconductor materials that have better properties for creating stronger agents, Gour-Lavie said. NT-Tao uses the superconductors as well as magnetic confinement lasers.
Without giving away all of its secrets, NT-Tao said it is taking the best of Tokamak technology and the best of stellarator technology and are refining those technologies to make a new design that will operate at significantly higher plasma density. The machine can heat up the plasma to huge temperatures that enable the fusion of hydrogen atoms to happen.
This gives NT-Tao the ability to generate a fusion reaction with a much smaller footprint than most of the other solutions under development. Furthermore, NT-Tao’s new magnetic chamber topology is designed to significantly reduce energy loss due to drifts, instabilities and other plasma disruptions, ensuring core temperature is maintained and creating a Super Stabilised Confined Plasma.
Compared to giant Tokamak systems, for example, NT-Tao’s Modular Fusion Reactor will harness and incubate a fusion reaction in a shipping container.
Since NT-Tao’s power supply technology has highly efficient energy coupling to the plasma, it enables a more flexible reactor that is expected to heat plasma at a thousand higher density. Most of the other approaches are designed and are limited to heating plasma at much lower densities, which requires longer pulses for energy output.
NT-Tao’s approach, on the other hand, will result in a significantly reduced pulse length (10 milliseconds compared to hundreds of seconds for Tokamaks and the like) but due to its high density, will generate a million times the rate of hydrogen atom collisions, enabling greater overall efficiency.
The combination of NT-Tao’s new magnetic topology with their disruptive heating technology will enable a compact fusion system to light a small town for years.
The company invented a “Critical Angular Momentum Plasma Stabilizer,” a core component of its proprietary Super Stabilized Confined Plasma (SSCP) technology.
The company will use this investment round to improve its technology in upcoming prototypes with the aim of achieving energy-breakeven and creating an infinite energy solution that powers the world’s sustainable, decarbonized future. Gour-Lavie hopes this can all be done in this decade.
While NT-Tao is working with some professors in Israel, it has yet to get some kind of third-party validation of its approach. Gour-Lavie hopes that will happen in the future. So far, the company isn’t publishing its own secrets, though VCs have done their due diligence.
“Some things we will be able to publish hopefully in the near future in this year,” he said. “We can present some of the results in a way that can be peer-reviewed by academic people.”
“Honda has high expectations for the future of NT-Tao, a company with advanced fusion energy technology, led by management team members with a high level of expertise,” said Shinji Aoyama, director and senior managing executive officer of Honda, in a statement. “Honda believes that fusion energy technology will be a breakthrough technology for affordable, stable, clean energy, and we envision this technology will become increasingly important as electrified vehicles become more popular. Honda will continue to search for, collaborate with, invest in, and acquire promising venture companies through our global open innovation program, Honda Xcelerator.”
Gour-Lavie, Doron Weinfeld, and Boaz Weinfeld started the company. Gour-Lavie spent 30 years in the Israeli Navy, mostly in the submarine force, and he retired as an admiral. He studied electrical engineering and did a master’s in national security at Harvard University’s Kennedy school.
“I was a nerdy guy who loved physics and loves technology, and grew up on Isaac Asimov and a lot of those kinds of books,” he said. “I loved seeing Carl Sagan in Cosmos when I was young. And Captain Kirk (in Star Trek).”
And so, during retirement, he turned his attention to solving the energy problem with a clean and safe source of energy — fusion energy. But it was a problem that hadn’t been solved after more than 80 years of research. He met a brilliant physicist in Israel and they started looking for solutions.
Gour-Lavie said his team hopes to create an entire stand-alone system. Ultimately, they hope to create a solution that fits in the size of a shipping container and has the potential to democratize energy worldwide. That container could produce dozens of megawatts, enough to energize a town.
The company collaborated with a lot of universities and the Ministry of Energy to make progress. And Gour-Lavie discovered the power of the Israeli startup economy. The company has 14 people. The company name comes from a formula for generating energy.
“We have the strongest team in Israel. We continue to build a very strong team,” Gour-Lavie said. “The entire Israeli ecosystem is now helping in what we do.”
He added, “It’s a tough roadmap. And we’re trying to solve the toughest problem, I think, in energy. And we’re moving forward now with some some major milestones in the coming months to see the increase of temperature to see everything is moving forward, as we expect. And eventually, what we want to see is a system that works, hopefully, before the end of the decade.”
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