In the growing race to harness the sun’s power for energy on Earth, a small Tustin company hopes the progress it’s making will lead the firm to the head of the pack.
“We have the goods,” says Gerald Simmons, CEO of Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies Inc., or MIFTI, with a major test of the process scheduled for February 2024.
At issue is nuclear fusion, a process of smashing atoms together to create nearly limitless supplies of energy to produce electricity.
The process is designed to create energy that heats water and turns it into steam at super-high temperatures. The steam then turns a turbine engine to produce electricity, potentially for hundreds of millions of households.
In terms of environmental impact, fusion is clean and poses no real dangers—the opposite from nuclear fission, which has produced such disasters such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan.
The desire to win the fusion race is so great and so potentially lucrative that more than 40 companies worldwide have jumped in, often bankrolled by hundreds of millions of dollars from investors.
They include Commonwealth Fusion Systems of Cambridge, Mass., Helion General Fusion in Everett, Wash., and OC company TAE Technologies.
TAE, based in Foothill Ranch, has raised over $1.2 billion to date, and spun off a pair of related companies, for cancer treatment and electric vehicle batteries, using technology it has developed over the years.
MIFTI got its start in 2008 by scientists from the University of California, Irvine.
CEO Gerald Simmons is co-founder of MIFTI along with Dr. Hafiz Ur Rahman, president and chief scientist, and Mohammad Arshad, CFO and COO.
Simmons’ résumé includes heading up several science-focused companies, while Rahman is a former faculty member at UCI, and Arshad is a business finance specialist.
While many of the fusion development companies raise and spend plenty of money, MIFTI, located at 2600 Walnut Ave. in Tustin, is sticking to the lean-and-mean approach.
Simmons told the Business Journal on Nov. 1 that the company has raised $12 million—enough for its needs so far—and uses other organizations’ research machines.
The money has included $5.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
Simmons says other funds come from family, friends, and a number of “environmentally conscious” investors.
The latest work includes research and experiments in the engineering laboratory at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where MIFTI researchers have built a tiny reactor called “Ceszar.”
The compact Ceszar device has successfully produced the required neutron indicators for a fusion reaction, MIFTI said.
While it is impossible to say just how close any company is to providing commercially viable energy, Farhat Beg, a UCSD professor and director of the university’s High Energy Density Physics Group, says MIFTI is among the companies that have “gotten good results.”
“Their idea is as good as anyone else’s who is working on fusion energy,” Beg told the Business Journal on Nov. 7, noting for transparency’s sake that he has collaborated with the Tustin-based company.
“MIFTI has made really good progress toward fusion energy,” Beg added.
MIFTI says it’s betting the next step—called Phase III and scheduled to be conducted at defense contractor L3 Harris Technologies facilities in February 2024—may be a decisive moment on its path toward fusion energy.
There, says Simmons, the company hopes to achieve thermonuclear fusion-based net energy gain, known as “ignition,” which researchers call the “Holy Grail” of commercially viable fusion energy power production.
In essence, ignition refers to that elusive moment when the fusion reaction produces more energy than the amount pumped into it.
MIFTI says that during its earlier experiments, the company’s patented technology reached a major milestone, “generating over 150 billion neutrons, the highest fusion energy yield by any private fusion company in history.”
The neutrons created by MIFTI’s process have an extremely short half-life and are not dangerous radioactive products.
Then last December, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility achieved fusion ignition for the first time in a laboratory setting, making major headlines around the world and bringing commercial fusion a giant step closer to commercial reality.
Livermore said the breakthrough could lead to a new source of boundless clean energy, as MIFTI is seeking to demonstrate.
Still, Simmons acknowledges that commercially viable fusion to make electricity is a “few years off,” a view shared by even the most ardent proponents of the technology.
The MIFTI staff now counts eight people, including five in the Tustin office.
“If we were to get funded today, we could have a prototype producing electricity in three years.”
He acknowledges it’s harder to raise money now that the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates.
MIFTI Provides Fusion Details For Physicists, and the Just Curious
While the MIFTI process of creating nuclear fusion goes over most laypeople’s heads, the company likes to spell out the details for experts to follow:
“The MIFTI Staged Z-pinch fusion process triggers a thermonuclear reaction that produces an enormous amount of nuclear energy in the form of neutrons. These neutrons are absorbed in lithium blankets, and the neutron-generated heat is then absorbed in water.
Like any nuclear reactor, the heated water turns into steam that runs the steam turbine engine to produce electricity.”
An important aspect of fusion energy, including MIFTI’s process, is that, unlike fission-based nuclear power plants, fusion does not require or create any long-term radioactive by-products.
In fact, MIFTI’s thermonuclear fusion technology is fueled by a simple isotope of hydrogen from seawater; a process for unlimited energy production that the company says is safe, clean, scalable, cost-effective, and can be applied anywhere power is needed.