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Norman plasma generator
TAE Technologies conducts fusion research using a plasma generator known as Norman. (TAE Photo)

TAE Technologies, the venture formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy, says it’s been admitted into a U.S. Department of Energy supercomputer program that should accelerate its drive to harness nuclear fusion.

The Office of Science program — known as Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment, or INCITE — will give researchers access to 31 million core hours on a Cray XC40 supercomputer, TAE said today in a news release.

TAE said its award was one of only 50 granted for the 2018 round of INCITE proposals. The award will provide access to DOE Leadership Computing Facilities at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The boost in data-processing resources is coming at a crucial time for the California-based company, which counts Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as one of its investors.

“TAE Technologies’ advancements to date are closely linked with our ability to access the world’s most powerful computers to model and understand highly sophisticated events happening in fractions of a second,” Michl Binderbauer, the company’s president and chief technology officer, said in a statement. “We are very proud to have been chosen to access INCITE and these advanced computational resources to help further our groundbreaking research for a fusion energy future.”

INCITE’s computer modeling and guidance will help TAE fine-tune its approach to what it calls “Friendly Fusion” — a technology known as beam-driven, field-reversed configuration, or FRC.

The approach involves shooting “smoke rings” of plasma at each other in a closed magnetic field, with precisely directed particle beams helping to stabilize the plasma long enough to achieve fusion.

Fusion is the reaction that powers the sun: It typically involves the high-temperature combination of two hydrogen nuclei to produce helium, with a bit of mass converted into energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2 formula.

If fusion could be harnessed on Earth, that could provide a relatively cheap, relatively clean source of power. But getting a controlled reaction to produce a net gain in power is devilishly difficult, despite decades of research.

In 2015, TAE reported that it was able to keep a high-temperature plasma stable for 5 milliseconds in its C-2U plasma generator, marking a significant advance for the field. Since then, the company has upgraded to an even more capable machine that’s nicknamed Norman — in honor of the company’s late co-founder, Norman Rostoker.

TAE is partnering with Google to optimize Norman’s plasma configuration using artificial intelligence, and this month, Binderbauer announced that the company achieved the colliding and merging of field-reversed configurations on the new machine.

“FRCs are a critical component of plasma confinement and stability,” Binderbauer said. “Thanks to our previous insights from C-2U, Norman’s plasma will be both hotter and more stable from the outset.”

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