Ben Levitt

Director of Research and Development

Zap Energy

June 21, 2021

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Ep 317: Ben Levitt - Director of Research and Development, Zap Energy
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Bret Kugelmass
We are here today on Titans of Nuclear with Ben Levitt, who is the Director of Research and Development at Zap Energy. Ben, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Ben Levitt
Hey, how you doing? Glad to be here.

Bret Kugelmass
Super excited to talk to a fusion guy. Every now and then we get - we focus mostly on fission - but sometimes we get to touch other things like medical reactors, occasionally fusion, and it's always super interesting to explore some of the differences and some of the similarities that the sectors have to face. So, let's get into it.

Ben Levitt
When you guys reached out to us, I confess I hadn't heard too much before. But in the past week or so, I've looked through, you have such an extensive list of interviews across such a broad range of nuclear issues. It's very impressive. Yeah, there's not a ton of fusion, but some pretty good ones. So, I'm happy and honored to be a part of that small list.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that's awesome. Okay. So, let's learn a little bit about you. Can you just tell us about where you grew up? And what got you interested in physics to begin with?

Ben Levitt
Definitely. So, I'm a Canuck. I'm Canadian. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That's a prairie town North of the Twin Cities. Just as a kid was always interested in sci-fi, reading lots of sci-fi books. Then, I wasn't particularly interested in physics, but I think I always point to my Grade 10 physics teacher. Sometimes it really comes down to having the right educators and that can really be a critical point in your development. I had a fantastic Grade 10 physics teacher who really just imparted excitement and enthusiasm. That got me thinking about physics, and then, on the environmental side, I've always been interested in the environment. I canvassed for Greenpeace when I was in high school, and that kind of thing. So, I've always been interested in environmental issues. By the time I got to college, I was looking at physics, and finally went to McGill in Montreal and studied atmospheric physics. That's kind of a combination of an environmental topic. This was in the 90s, a little bit before we knew about greenhouse warming gases, but it wasn't a predominant topic as it is today. So, from there, after I got a degree in atmospheric physics, I went to Columbia in New York, and that's where I got into plasma physics. I always thought of it as kind of like going up higher and higher in the Earth's atmosphere. Going from atmospheric physics, as you go higher up, you get to the ionosphere, and then all of a sudden, you have weather. But hold on, there are electric currents and magnetic fields going on. There's just so much more. You have all the complexity of the atmosphere, but then throw in Maxwell's equations to it, too. So, then you get to plasma physics. That was really fantastic, but I really came at it from more of a fundamental science perspective. I wasn't necessarily thinking about fusion, back then. I was looking more at what you'd call space plasma physics, so how the solar wind interacts with the Earth's atmosphere and all those kinds of dynamics. We worked on an experiment under Professor Michael Maul, who's one - there's a Titan of Nuclear for you there - fantastic guy in the plasma physics community, working a lot on fusion. Anyways, we also had tokamaks in the lab there and there was a lot of fusion, but it didn't really draw me yet. It was very applied for me at the time and had a strong whiff of engineering, which, again at the time, I was a little bit more idealistic, maybe and was looking at fundamental science. So, I didn't really get too much into fusion, then. It's a pretty nonlinear road to fusion, I would say. After my PhD, then I went more into an accelerator physics area. I went to CERN-

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, great. Yes.

Ben Levitt
-in Geneva.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing facilities out there.

Ben Levitt
I was there for three or four years. That was also plasma physics, but a completely different area. That was low temperature plasma physics, where we actually trapped antimatter plasmas. CERN would accelerate higher energy particles, generate antimatter, and then we would have this device called a Penning trap, where you can slow down and actually trap antiprotons. That was super cool.

Bret Kugelmass
And was that with- that wasn't with Michael Doser was it?

Ben Levitt
No, he was doing one of the other experiments there. There are a few competing experiments, fiercely competitive. I was working for the ATRAP collaboration, which is run by Gerald Gabrielse of Harvard University at the time. My postdoc was out of Harvard, but working in CERN. Now he's at Northwestern. So, it was a competing group. But anyways, we were the first group to trap antiprotons, cools them down to near absolute zero, and then study them. Then the end goal is to combine positrons with antiprotons and make neutral antimatter, so antihydrogen. And that was done. Well, talk about an energy source. That would be the ultimate energy source, even better than fusion. But that's maybe a few years down the road.

Bret Kugelmass
And why is antimatter better if you're not in a spaceship where mass is so important?

Ben Levitt
Why is it better?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, why is it better?

Ben Levitt
It's just efficiency. So, it's like the purest conversion of any process from mass to energy, because-

Bret Kugelmass
It's better on a mass perspective, but from like, a systems perspective, if-

Ben Levitt
No, that's why I'm saying it's a few years down the road, because if you look - somebody figured this out in our collaboration - if you look at all the antimatter ever made on the earth, it couldn't warm up a cup of tea. There's a lot of it out there in the universe, but to produce it, it's very inefficient to actually produce it. If you have it, and you annihilate an antiproton with a proton, all of that mass, 100% of that mass goes into energy equals mc squared. It's an annihilation event.

Bret Kugelmass
I guess my point was, that efficiency on a mass basis makes sense when your driving economic forces are the mass of your fuel, let's say like, in a space travel situation where it plays so heavily into your system economics. But even if your fuel was free, for antimatter, if the system that you had to build around it to be able to harness that energy was more complex-

Ben Levitt
Like CERN?

Bret Kugelmass
Exactly. Like it would never-

Ben Levitt
I am not arguing, believe me, I'm not arguing for this. We were looking at this from a fundamental physics point of view, trying to prove something about what's called, this is the standard model of physics. We were looking at charge parity time invariance, where you're trying to understand why is the universe dominated by matter instead of antimatter. So, you compare the charge to mass ratios of these things and some other aspects. So far, they still look exactly the same. That's still a work in progress. My point of view was, that's really cool, but I just loved the toys. I loved working at CERN. I loved being able to trap antimatter. You see the signal on your oscilloscope and you're like, Oh, my gosh, that's antiprotons right there. That was just super fun. And all of the techniques, the experimental techniques, are just mind boggling and super fun. But maybe to continue the trajectory, after that, five years or so, I maybe had been finally cured of my idealism. I'd worked at CERN with all these fantastic physicists and really wanted to do something more applied and I was still very interested in energy. But we're still not at fusion yet. In fact, I took a pretty left turn. At that point, I took a job working for Schlumberger, which is an oilfield services company in Boston. Not that I was ever thinking of that industry at all. In fact, it was completely a surprise, even to myself, that went that direction. But the folks approached me there and said, We want you to work on compact accelerators, like that you can fit in your palm. Really cool technology and that's all about nuclear welding, so putting a source of radiation, an electronic source of radiation, down a well and doing survey of what's around there and-

Bret Kugelmass
Why did they need it to be an accelerator? Why not just take some other radioactive isotope and-

Ben Levitt
Well, that's done regularly. They use cesium-137 for a gamma ray source, and they use americium and beryllium for a neutron source. Those are both very strong radioisotopes and that's been done since early in the last century.

Bret Kugelmass
So, what problem are they trying to solve with the accelerator?

Ben Levitt
Well, there are a couple things. First of all, for neutrons, having a continuous source like americium and beryllium is fine, but if you can chop the beam, if you can get a pulse, and you have a stop in the neutron burst, a whole bunch of other physics becomes available to you, because you see things like the die away of neutrons, and you can actually differentiate between certain types of signals you're getting, whether there's a neutron absorption or inelastic cross section. There are different ways that neutrons can interact with atomic nuclei. If you can chop the beam, then you can actually differentiate all these time-dependent things and you get a lot more measurements. So, that's one thing, just a fundamental thing.

Bret Kugelmass
I guess, what does it go towards? Does it go towards materials characterization in the field? Is that why it needed to be small?

Ben Levitt
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, practically, you're putting this thing on a wire miles underground, in a borehole that could be-

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, I see, it's for geological exploration,

Ben Levitt
Geological exploration.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, now I understand.

Ben Levitt
There are other uses that the industry uses it for, but it had to also fit that purpose as well. So, we're talking about a neutron generator, an electronic neutron generator, in fact, it's a fusion generator, right. It's a deuterium tritium accelerator the size of a cigar. You accelerate these ionized deuterium and tritium, you accelerate them to 100 kilovolts onto a target and it undergoes fusion. In effect, that was my coming back to fusion, coming back to plasma physics, but not for the energy, not for the power generator, but for the neutrons, for the high energy neutrons. You get the neutron, you send it out, it interacts with matter, and you get a whole host of information. I mean, we think about material ASIO. So, an X-ray at the dentist, or looking at using gamma rays in medicine. That gives you just density, but neutron interaction with matter gives you so much more information. There's a lot that you can get.

Bret Kugelmass
I'm sorry, just to double click on that one more second, because this is super interesting stuff. I love the practical explorations of these things. Was it that they were trying to get a continuous feed of data? Or was it that they wanted to get instantaneous data? Like, I guess my question is, in theory, whatever went down there could have just scooped something out, brought it back to the surface, sent it to a lab, and done some materials characterization there. So, which aspect of it was that they wanted? They wanted to be able to essentially like map as they go, or just know instantly?

Ben Levitt
You can do that. Coring, they do coring. And by the way, this is all stuff that I'm like, I don't pretend to be an expert at this. I worked on the neutron generators. What appeals to me, frankly, is the neutron generators, not necessarily the oilfield application.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, we can move on, that's okay.

Ben Levitt
But I can answer your question. They do coring, but that's expensive, right? You take a core, you have to bring it all the way back up, and you send it to the lab, and then a couple weeks later, you have something. But the nuclear data, the guys sitting up there can make real time decisions. And that goes out into - it's not just a localized measurement - the particles go out into the formation, interact with the matter, the resulting gamma rays, or x-rays, come back and you measure. So, you're learning something about the further out in the medium. That's why they wanted to do that. My original interest was really, like I said, I'm an environmentalist. I do care about CO2. At the time, this was 2008. There was carbon capture, it was a big deal. At the time, there was a bill in the Senate, the American Clean Energy and Security Act where we were going to have a carbon tax. Carbon was going to be the source of a huge industry, right? That was exciting and I would have been working on that, because he would need to take carbon, put it down in the ground, and then monitor it. You'd have to have all these sophisticated monitoring of like, is the liquid CO2 moving? Is it migrating? Is it staying into place? Anyways, so I came online, but that didn't pan out. That didn't pass the Senate, as you know. There's no carbon industry right now, there's no carbon tax. So, I ended up working on the neutron generators, and the technological side. The interest for me working on these neutron generators took over and, 12 years later, I was still working in there and having really a great time. It's a fantastic facility they have in Boston, where there are 150 scientists. It's really like the way industry, maybe used to be, like in the fashion of your old Bell Labs, where industry put a lot of investment into research. There was a chemistry department, there was a nuclear physics department there were MRI folks, geologists. That was a great place to be. So, back to the trajectory, getting back to that, it still wasn't really fulfilling my desire to make a step change in energy. Over those 12 years, of course, things have just gotten worse and worse and worse in terms of our climate problem. In the past few years, I've been looking to get back into fusion finally. I wasn't as interested back in my PhD days, but now I was certainly maybe a more mature person and really wanting to apply to- and fusion has really heated up. I mean, it's really a golden age in terms of all these startups coming online in the past decade, or even less. There's been a lot of government funding, a lot of VC in the area. It's just a super hot area right now to get into and so there are more opportunities. Back when I was finishing my PhD, there just weren't that many opportunities either. So, I've been looking-

Bret Kugelmass
So, did you find Zap or did they find you?

Ben Levitt
They found me, but I was certainly open to be found and had been talking to different people in the industry at friends' and different places, asking them. I've spoken to different startups, spoken to Commonwealth. I've spoken to TAE, spoken to different ones, and definitely have friends in different areas. But a lot of folks that I spoke to just really loved Zap. This is Zap Energy Incorporated out of Seattle, spun off from UW, the University of Washington. They really spoke highly and so, just have been talking to them for the last year and a half. I ended up coming on just at the beginning of this year. So, I've been there for - what is that now - five months. A little bit fresh, but now I'm the Director of Research and Development there.

Bret Kugelmass
And what's the story behind Zap's origin? Do you know the history of it?

Ben Levitt
Zap incorporated in 2017. So, fairly young, but the work has been done at UofW for a couple of decades now, since the 90s. The three founders are very interesting guys, fantastic scientists and entrepreneurs. The science goes back to Uri Shumlak who is a professor of physics UofW and who worked on these Z-pinch machines since the 90s with Brian Nelson, now an emeritus professor of electrical engineering. He's now left UW to be full time at Zap. Uri is still at university, still teaching, but is co-founder. And then Benj Conway is a British entrepreneur who wanted to also get into the fusion game and had been surveying back in like 2015, 2016, 2017, surveying the field and did his due diligence and found these guys. Found Uri and found Brian at UofW and really pitched it to them. They already had funding, significant funding, federal funding, from ARPA-E. ARPA-E gives a lot of funding to fusion energy. They had a pretty robust program and had already proven a lot of the physics behind the Z-pinch. They're what's called the sheer flow, stabilize Z-pinch, which is, maybe we'll get into that. So, they did a good job convincing them and they incorporated in 2017, closed their series A, and then we've just now last week - or maybe it was two weeks ago - announced closing our Series B round, which was really exciting, really an oversubscribed round. We continue to have our core funders from Round A, which, actually, Chevron is a big one. Getting back to oil and gas, it's a real trendy thing now for oil and gas to be funding nuclear fusion. Right? Commonwealth has funding from EMI - and maybe also Statoil, I'm not sure, there's another one in there. They're doing their due diligence, they're looking at how to contribute to the energy transition. Anyways, we're looking to build and grow really quickly. Right now, we're a team of 20. I was employee nine five months ago, and we'll be doubling in the next 12 to 18 months as well and trying to focus, not just on the core, the fusion core, but on the reactor itself. Once you have an operating fusion core, there are a lot of auxiliary systems that need to be in place and worked on. We're focusing on that.

Bret Kugelmass
So, the money that you raised is going mostly towards engineering, or is it also to build out like a lab scale prototype of some sort?

Ben Levitt
Both. I would say 50/50. We have an existing machine which we have moved from the UofW and we're recommissioning now. That will be operating soon. And then we're building a next generation machine, which will be online by the end of the year. That should take us to break even, that is energy output equals energy input. If we achieve that - our plan is 2023, in the next 18 months to do that - that would be the first time, not just a startup, but any plasma physics fusion machine has done that. It's an aggressive timeline. That would not be a reactor, that would be still a Z-pinch machine, which is, the neutrons are going off into space. There's no breeding blanket, there's no heat transfer, there's no steam cycle yet, and all that. There's no electricity conversion yet. All those separate ancillary systems are being worked on in parallel and being built up now with us having closed this round.

Bret Kugelmass
I see. So, the breakeven mark - is that energy of electricity going into the system equals the theoretical heat energy produced, but not electrical energy produced?

Ben Levitt
Not actual energy produced. It would be the equivalent. Yeah, exactly.

Bret Kugelmass
In heat though, not electricity.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, not converted to electricity. Correct.

Bret Kugelmass
Then, is there another term for when it's breakeven of all your inputs equal all your outputs?

Ben Levitt
That's still, all your inputs equal all your outputs, that's scientific break even. Then there would be - and that's called Q, Q equals one.

Bret Kugelmass
That's for electricity coming in, but heat coming out, you're saying? The energy measured is in heat joules of some sort?

Ben Levitt
Well, it's an entire... You're measuring the neutrons you're taking- your neutrons are your money, right? For a DT reaction, 80% of the energy comes out as neutrons, 20% comes out as alphas. And so it would be measuring all - and as well, there's also Bremsstrahlung, so there are gammas coming out as well. So, it's basically from your neutron flux, and then what would be the convertible part of that that would then go into electricity.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, okay. So, the convertible part, let's say, like, 35% of it or something. That's breakeven when you get, let's say, two to three times as much-

Ben Levitt
Well, scientific breakeven, which is the lowest threshold of Q=1 - which again, has still not been achieved, the best so far, I believe, was... which was Q of 0.67, that's pretty close - but again, that's scientific breakeven, and that's the lowest bar that you get to, which is not taking into account efficiencies. That's just purely, like I said, just doing what's convertible into energy without efficiencies.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. But it is like, the energy coming in has to be electricity, right? It's not like it's a heat energy coming in, right. Okay, so now tell me, you characterize this as a Z-pinch. Can you maybe explain what a Z-pinch is and, also how it relates to some of the other fusion ideas out there?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, definitely. So, a Z-pinch has a long history in fusion. It's one of the earliest, or maybe the earliest concept, that was looked into. And in fact, even before fusion, there are some historical notes going back to even the 18th century where somebody observed- basically what it is, is dumping a lot of current into a wire, in its simplest. And then, there were some other observations in the early part of the last century. In the 1930s, finally, a guy named Bennett really worked out the theory behind it. And then for fusion applications, already in the mid 40s, and then more seriously in the 50s, this was looked into, initially in the UK. There was a lot of activity there where you have a plasma device. It's basically a coaxial accelerator. You have some cylindrical geometry, an outer electrode, and an inner electrode. There are different flavors, so mostly what I'll be describing is what we do, but they're all pretty similar. So, what you're doing is basically having an arc between those two electrodes and then forming a beam, a plasma that forms along the axis between those two accelerators, between those two electrodes. So, very simple. It's called Z-pinch, because it's along what's known as the Z-axis. The Z-axis is the long axis of your cylinder there. It's very simple geometry. And the confinement is extremely simple, because there are no magnets. That's why it was looked at first, because it's just so simple, and that's because of the Lorentz force law. You dump your capacitor bank or something, you charge up the capacitor bank, have this arc discharge inside, and then you have this thin sheet of plasma. The current is going on the Z-axis, and then, by your Lorentz force law, you generate a magnetic field by having these Lorentz charges that goes around in what's called the theta, or the phi direction. And so, in your right-hand rule, the field, the magnetic field makes circles going around that line of current. Now, you take that one step further, and you calculate the Lorentz force on that, which is the current crossed with the magnetic field direction, and that gives you an inward force and that's the pinch. There's an actual Lorentz force law compressing that plasma, and it does it free of charge. That field is just the self-field of the plasma and it just works out, so if you increase the current, that field is pinching it smaller and smaller and smaller and confining it. That sounds awesome, right? Great. There was a lot of excitement on that in the early 50s. So, nothing comes for free. What's the downside? The downside is instabilities. This is not- this is an equilibrium and what's so nice and elegant about is you can analytically solve this. You can write down these equations, you can really understand the relationship between the current and the field, the current and the pressure equilibrium, and how the density looks on axes and all this stuff and it's very elegant, and you can write it down quite simply. But it's not a stable equilibrium. So, in fact, as you pump more and more current, the density goes higher and higher. You have these oddly named instabilities which occur, which are particular to the to the Z-pinch, and they're called the kink instability and the sausage instability.

Bret Kugelmass
I assume that has to do with the shape of the instability?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, good guess. So, the researchers saw this right away and the end result is the plasma leaks out against the magnetic field. There are a couple analogies I like to use against for this. One of them is simply just sort of atmospheric convection. Say you have a hot day, there's a lot of hot air on the ground. That air is being held against the gravitational force pointing downwards. Whenever everything's completely still, you can do that. You can have this sort of temperature inversion, and you can keep hot air on the ground there. But more often than not, you get convection and the air will bubble up, and you'll form these very impressive cumulus clouds, and that is just convection. It's an instability. It's a thermal instability of the hot air rising up against the gravitational confinement. It's similar, where the plasma is sort of going unstable between the radial Lorentz confinement, and that's where this pinching happens, or this sausage or necking - it's also called a necking instability - where, instead of having this nice beam, you'll form these pinching and it'll turn into like what comes out of a sausage factory. So, you'll pinch it here and then the sausages don't just stay sausage, they balloon out even further and you are losing your fuel. You're losing your plasma, you're losing your-

Bret Kugelmass
Can you help describe - I think I understand the forces that you're creating, you describe the coils of wire that help you pass current and everything - but what does the rest of the system look like? Is it inside a vacuum chamber?

Ben Levitt
Oh, yeah, it's vacuum, exactly. You have an outer wall and then inside that outer wall are the two electrodes. That would be an outer electrode and an inner electrode. Those would be basically your cathode and your anode. Outside the vacuum chamber, you have a capacitor bank, what you're charging up to 100 kilojoules, or something. You're charging that up. And it's a pulsed machine, so it's very different than a tokamak, which is a steady state. So, you're pulsing this at some repetition rate, you're dumping the charge across those electrodes, and you're putting lots of current, like hundreds of kiloamps of current, and you have a very high current beam - you can think of it as a beam - in the plasma.

Bret Kugelmass
How do you get the fuel to line up with your pinch points? Is the chamber just full of both deuterium and tritium and you're hoping that they run into each other? Or do you-

Ben Levitt
Then it's a nice choreography of, you puff in gas - and it'll be deuterium and tritium - at certain locations along the pinch and you make those coincide in time, the puffing of the gas and having the arc. You're discharging that current across.

Bret Kugelmass
Do you have to get all three things to meet in space at the same time - one deuterium, one tritium, and that arc - all in the exact same spot?

Ben Levitt
Not exactly, I mean, you need the deuterium and tritium to meet in space, but that's what the arc is. Deuterium and tritium - let's just say hydrogen for now - so, hydrogen is in there, whatever isotopes you have, whatever mixes, and that arc breaks it down. So, you're breaking down that hydrogen into a current path and that's the ionized gas. Then the ionized gas, or ions of deuterium and tritium, and that's what makes your current path.

Bret Kugelmass
Maybe you could explain that a little bit more.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, sure.

Bret Kugelmass
Can you explain it a little more. You don't start off with a reservoir of tritium and a reservoir of deuterium?

Ben Levitt
Neutral gas, of neutral gas. Yes, you have a bottle of it outside-

Bret Kugelmass
-Sorry, are they mixed together or have you already done some sort of isotopic separation?

Ben Levitt
Oh, in an actual reactor - well, let's get to that, let's set that aside. Let's just get the formation of a pinch down. Don't worry about whether it's deuterium or tritium, it works either way. Now, we work with deuterium, and deuterium and deuterium fuse also.

Bret Kugelmass
I see, so you're not specifying a certain fusion reaction, you're letting whatever happens happens.

Ben Levitt
Ultimately, we'll talk about the reactor, I just don't want to confuse the issues. We will be running deuterium and tritium. Definitely. That's the reaction that we will be using, for sure. I just want to make sure, if the question you had was on the formation of Z-pinch itself.

Bret Kugelmass
I'm more interested in the physical parameters of the system. So, let's say in the eventual reactor, you've got a deuterium, you've got a tritium, they have to hit, they have to be co-located with each other, right?

Ben Levitt
Yeah. So, that's inside the pinch. Those are ions that are forming the current of the pinch. They are co-located, because we are having an extremely, extremely high density. This magnetic field confines the pinch. It makes the density goes extremely high. To give you a sense of it, the pinch is, let's say it's 50 centimeters long, and it's submillimeter. You're confining it so much so that this beam, the radius of this beam, is submillimeter, so hundreds of microns. I's very high density, high temperature. Within that, the fusion reactions are happening within that pinch. It's not like it's a target downstream. It's another form of fusion. You could have like what I did with Schlumberger was beam target fusion, where those ions had a target. This is happening inside the plasma, inside the pinch. Those deuterium tritium ions are being confined at high density and that's why they are encountering each other with lots of collisions and some of those collisions are fusion collisions

Ben Levitt
I see. And then, how do you make sure, though, that they don't run into- if you put a bunch of deuteriums in and a bunch of tritiums in, how do you make sure that it's a deuterium and a tritium that hit each other and not two deuteriums that hit each other? I understand you can demonstrate how it still work with two deuteriums, but in your eventual reactor, how do you make sure you get what you want going in?

Ben Levitt
They just do that themselves. It's very nice of them. It's just because deuterium-tritium, the cross section, or the reactivity, you can think of it, is just so much higher, which is why you use deuterium-tritium. Otherwise, you'd use - let's just say DD and DT from now on - otherwise, you'd use DD, because tritium is a little bit of a headache. But DT has a great cross section. It's the highest of any of these hydrogenic fusion reactions and it gives you the highest energy neutron. There are just lots of reasons why you do that. So, they just do that themselves, just because the reactivity is higher.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I'd be less worried about the deuterium-deuterium, because that would produce tritium. Right? I'd be more worried about the deuterium-tritium, now you've got to helium there. What do you do to make sure that helium isn't like parasitic on your reaction?

Ben Levitt
Yeah. So, I mean, that's a really good question. And actually, I just listened to the one you did with Dennis White, and he explained the helium ash issue and how you pump that out. It's a little bit different for us, because again, we're not steady state, we're pulsed. These things last for a few tens of microseconds. So, it's not as much of an issue, and also for us, it's not immediately clear as we move towards higher current and above breakeven whether the alphas are confined or not. An alpha that's not confined just hits the wall and it's not a huge issue for us. But we are looking into that, as well. Maybe I'll leave that particular topic for there. That's a work in progress, which we'll let you know about soon.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, cool. And then, I guess the other question I have is, what is the theoretical rate of reactions that you can have in this - whatever geometry system you define, let's say 50 centimeters long or something - what is the maximum theoretical - and let's say you had all your capacitors ready to go - how many of these reactions, or how much energy could you produce in this device?

Ben Levitt
Well, let's just go straight to the bottom line and skip the reactivity and talk about what the power plant output looks like, and how close we are. Does that sound good?

Bret Kugelmass
I guess I just want to know the theoretical bounding conditions for this, let's say 50 centimeter vacuum chamber device.

Ben Levitt
Well, okay. We're missing a key step which is, why does this work now and it didn't work in the 50s. I think we kind of skipped over that, that's sort of the bread and butter of ZEI. Why are we looking at Z-pinches again? This is going back to the instability. Like I said, they quit, basically in the 50s, looking at this and went to helical confinement, so tokamaks for example, stellarators and field reverse configurations and these types of things, because those types of field lines are closed field lines. They loop back around each other and it solves these particular instability issues at the cost of having an expensive set of external magnetic fields. Whole other topic we can talk about, but let's focus on the Z-pinch for now. I think this is one of the key advantages, right? Again, you don't have the magnetic fields, if you can keep it stable. So, how do you prevent this cumulonimbus cloud from escaping from the earth and giving you convection? So, turns out - and Uri did this seminal work in the 90s - that, if you can have a sheared flow, so if you can have a flow in the other direction, say parallel to the Earth's surface in this analogy that I'm making with convection, so that there's no flow on the Earth's surface, but then as you go up higher and higher, you're getting faster and faster and faster flow. So, it's sort of tangential flow. This is called this sheared flow stabilization. Turns out, if you do that, you're sort of interfering with the coherence of this instability. You're mixing phases and you're destroying the coherence of the mode. That was done in theory and then in the early 2000, they did this. They proved that, if you put on just a simple flow, in the geometry of the Z-pinch, they stabilized the pinch. So, you can look at one of these shots - and this is published, all this is published, we're not super secretive about the science and you can look at the publication record - but you look at a shot and you dump the current into the plasma and - let's say it's 100 kiloamps for this particular shot - the current goes up. Now, you can measure these instabilities by looking at certain diagnostic. You can see the activity and they have a certain frequency content, and you can see all this noise. As the current's going up, you see all this noise and it's unstable. And then once it hits a certain plateau, it suddenly goes away. It all becomes perfectly quiet. You get what's called this quiescent period and the instabilities go away. Then, lo and behold, during this quiescent period, on your neutron monitors, all this activity starts coming up and you start getting tons of fusion reaction neutrons. That's your sign of fusion there. They've studied this a lot in the last decade. So, this shear flow stabilized Z-pinch is working, and now, where we're at, just to give you a sense of where that is in relation to breakeven-

Bret Kugelmass
Just one more question. What are the driving physical parameters that allow you to achieve the stability?

Ben Levitt
It's this flow. You have a certain criteria, and you can solve, look at this equilibrium and just analytically look, and you can see that, if you have a certain shear flow rate, the shear of it, the gradient of the flow, has to be above a certain level. It has to be shearing it fast enough. And then you get this decoherence of these modes and stabilization. Those are the parameters of the metric.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, but I guess I'm wondering, what are the physical parameters by how you configure the system in a way that it has this shear flow? Is it that you have the right pulses at the right frequency? Is it that you have the right thickness of cable? What are the driving physical parameters?

Ben Levitt
A lot of that is the secret sauce of ZEI, which is our secret sauce. So, we don't want to talk too much about that. But it's definitely a lot to do with-

Bret Kugelmass
I don't need you to give away your secret sauce. But I'm just wondering if it is a computational or is it materials-based? Or, what is the thing that has allowed this that didn't allow it previously? But I can imagine, nowadays we have computers that can help read some feedback from what's going on in the system, and then maybe kind of calibrate the pulses, and understand how its calibration might yield to this more steady state? Is it something like that?

Ben Levitt
It's more elegant than that. I mean, it's engineering. It's engineering and it's plasma physics. It's not any complicated feedback during the plasma shot or anything like that. It's building the machine in such a way as to produce the shear that you want.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, geometric, you're saying.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, geometric fundamental to the machine. It's not any AI, or it's not any feedback or anything like that. It's a very elegant, simple machine. I've visited many - while they're not reactors - but many facilities, and you'd be surprised to see the simplicity. This is a machine that is the size of a VW microbus, for example, pretty small, and with no terawatt lasers, no high temperature superconducting magnets.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, it's just a coil of wires, but you're saying they have to be calibrated at just the right geometry is essential.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, you have to build it right. It's you know, it's metal. It's engineering metal in the right way. And it's building the capacitor banks, which are not nothing. I mean, pulsed power is certainly a key core technology of ours as well. And it's doing all this in the right way. For sure.

Bret Kugelmass
Got it. Okay, yeah, sorry. We were a little on diversion. I guess my question. Okay, you were saying VW bus. So, this VW bus, maybe this is your prototype. The full scale system, about how big would it be and how much power would it produce?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, it'd be a VW microbus hot dog. You'd have the VW as your hot dog, and then you'd have a bun around it. It's basically three meters by three meters. It's a cylinder of say, three meters by three meters. So, it's like a garage. You have the reactor and around the reactor- well, let's talk about the reactor for a second. What's nice about this, and what's very different from all the other different known applications, all the other attempts at doing this, is the fact that you have no magnets. The fact that you have no magnets means you don't have to protect the magnets from neutrons. The other thing that all of us have, all these fusion reactors have, is a way to convert neutrons, if it's neutronic. Okay, let's not talk about aneutronic just yet. If it's neutronic, you need to convert the neutrons and you typically do that in a blanket what's called a tritium blanket, where you take the neutrons, and it does a bunch of things that converts neutrons to heat. Then you have some kind of thermal transport, and this is a liquid metal, and so we'd have a liquid metal, which does all that. That liquid metal in this case would be lithium lead. And they do all these things. They convert neutrons to heat. They breed tritium, that's what the lithium is there for. So, you have a closed cycle where we don't buy tritium, we make our own tritium and act as a radiological neutron shield, so no neutrons get out of that.

Bret Kugelmass
And theoretically, is this breeding happening in situ? Or is there a process where you have to remove the helium at some point, process it, distill it and then get back into the system?

Ben Levitt
No, it's a closed cycle. And, again, we don't have this and this is - I wouldn't call it cookie cutter - but this would be similar to, this part specifically would be similar to other folks, ITER would have that, or Commonwealth and anybody running DT is going to have a similar type of steam cycle arrangement. They're gonna have an area where you would do isotopic separation of the tritium and then feed that back into the system. So, a closed loop there. What's different for us is that our liquid is going to be part of the core itself. It'll act as an electrode. So, it's a conducting medium, which is very cool. That means that now we have just a metal wall for our own electrode. In the reactor, our outer wall is actually going to be this liquid metal wall. It's right there.

Bret Kugelmass
This wall - I'm just trying to visualize it for a second - is it literally, directly in that vacuum? Or being pushed up against the outside of it? Or is there like another really thin piece of like stainless steel or something that forms a chamber?

Ben Levitt
No, it's in the vacuum. This has been done before by a few folks. It's been studied before, it's not necessarily our idea. It's been a it's been studied a lot.

Bret Kugelmass
And the geometry of this wall matters, or is it?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, I mean, the geometry- so, you have a cylinder now and now you have a cylinder, instead of being horizontal, it's kind of down. So, you have a flow of this wall that goes down over what you call a waterfall. Of course, this is very dense liquid, its lead. It's not like it's splashing around or anything like that. It's a very thick, viscous liquid.

Bret Kugelmass
And it's and it's flowing over what? Is it like a stainless steel barrier behind it or something.

Ben Levitt
I mean, it's called a weir wall. The actual engineering of it, I defer to one of our engineers to describe, but this would be something like just like a very smooth waterfall.

Bret Kugelmass
And there's no problem with corrosion, especially with the potential difference that you're creating, like the liquid lead having some corrosive effect on whatever physical barriers holding it up?

Ben Levitt
Not that we know of so far. There have been studies on this, but this is not nothing- there are studies that have to be done, material studies, and then looking at the ablation of this high power plasma dumping power into this thing. But again, a lot of studies and I'm not an expert on this particular aspect. I'm more of the plasma physicist guy, so we have people working on this. What you would do then is convert the neutrons. This would be a flowing thing. You'd have the heat coming out of there. You'd breathe the tritium. And it's quite simple, because, you're not having to protect any magnets. That's what's critical in like things like Tokamaks. I've seen amazing presentations from some of our competitors, which, they're fantastic, but they almost advertise that they have the highest thermal gradients in the universe. Well, that looks like a risk to me, where you have the hottest medium in the universe, and then, centimeters away, you have some of the coldest, because you have - well, it's not that high temperature, but it's a high temperature superconducting magnet, so it's still at tens of Kelvin - and you have to protect that, not just from the heat load, but also from the neutron flux.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, the neutron is what I've been more worried about. How do you guys protect your coil of wire from neutron as well?

Ben Levitt
We don't have any coil. There's no wire.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh there's no wire in the middle?

Ben Levitt
The current is the plasma. So, you have just metal electrodes.

Bret Kugelmass
An anode and a cathode, you were saying? are correct.

Ben Levitt
Correct. Think of it as like a cylindrical geometry, like a coaxial cable. You have an outer an outer anode and then, along the axis is an inner electrode. That inner electrode stops at some point and where that inner electrode, which is the cathode stops, is where the beam starts. If I could draw this for you, it's very easy. It maybe sounds more complicated, it's pretty simple.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And so, is one material the anode and a different material, the cathode?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, there'll be different materials. And certainly the inner electrode will see a lot of heat flux, and that would be the one thing that would be something that you would have to replace.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, that's what I meant. When I said wire, I just meant whatever the inner electrode is. So, the inner electrode is not your lead, your liquid lead material, it's something else?

Ben Levitt
That's going to be graphite, for example.

Bret Kugelmass
It's gonna be graphite? Oh, I didn't realize graphite could conduct enough current, that's interesting. Okay. So, the neutrons have two problems. The first is that they would, in theory, degrade the material, and then you have to replace the material. I understand, when your materials are those really expensive magnets, that could be a killer for that type of project. And that's where the neutrons can cause serious damage there. But what about the other aspect of the neutrons doing enough damage, not from a physical structural perspective, but creating yet more instabilities by just changing like the atomic lattice of whatever your cathode is?

Ben Levitt
Oh, jeez, no, I mean, it's not going to. We'd certainly change it out before anything like that happened. There's still a lot of work to be done on plasma material interaction. That's something that we definitely piggyback on. I mean, everyone is doing that in the industry, particularly, you know, you know, folks at ITER have a huge center for that. So, we're doing some of it, but the whole industry is looking at this, especially tokamaks are looking at divertor materials and activating all of their inner walls. Our problem is a quite a bit more manageable, since it's just this one, the tip of this inner electrode that would have to be changed out. But again, you have to do work on materials, and that would be something that would be swapped out at some point. But I think it's a little bit easier for us, because what we're looking at is a modular reactor. So, once you get to commercial breakeven, that's like a Q of 20, or something-

Bret Kugelmass
That's was looking for before, when we were talking about breakeven. Okay, so your name for it is commercial breakeven.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, the whole industry talks about this. There's scientific, then engineering, then commercial. And when you get to something commercial, our scale-up, we need to scale up by about a factor of three and current to get there. It's not like we're orders of magnitude away. Right now we're say, at the area of 500 kiloamps.

Bret Kugelmass
And commercial takes into account your heat to electricity conversion cycles?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, it's got everything in there. That's an estimate, right? There are still several unknowns. Approximately, we're looking at 1.5 mega amps. So, it's a factor of three and current we're scaling up from now to then. So, it's not that far away. And incidentally, scientific breakeven, which would be again, the first ever, is roughly 600 or more. So, we're going from 500 to 600 and we're at breakeven.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, that was in current. What about in terms of watts? What power system is this?

Ben Levitt
Scientific, I mean, these things scale extremely strongly. What's interesting in the Z-pinch is that the neutron production, the fusion output, scales to the 11th power of current. It's got this amazingly strong current dependence. Right now, at scientific breakeven, it's fairly useless.

Bret Kugelmass
I meant for commercial breakeven.

Ben Levitt
Okay, so getting back to that. That's what I was going to say. We'd look at a 200 megawatt core and then the idea would be to have it modular. So, depending on what you want, if you want, like, I don't know, a gigawatt reactor, you'd have several of these things online.

Bret Kugelmass
In fission they talk about the same type of thing.

Ben Levitt
Say it again? Right, it's a modular reactor.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, so you've got 200 megawatts in something the size of a minibus or something. That's what we can think of when we think of this fusion core.

Ben Levitt
Correct.

Bret Kugelmass
And then it's got walls and it's got liquid lead flowing down, and you've got a capacitor bank and you're pumping energy in, and then some cycle where it's getting your tritium back and this whole thing is ongoing. Then, all of a sudden, you crank up a little bit more, and now you get a little extra electricity.

Ben Levitt
We wouldn't be cranking at that point. This is just in the science phase. We're cranking up the current and making sure we understand the science as we go up in current, making sure we understand the output and all these things and making sure we understand the engineering. Once you've gotten to Q=20, then you're designing a reactor and you have it at a fixed current. You're not messing around with the current there. And then you're commercial. Then you have a reactor, let's say you want your gigawatt reactor, you have whatever, 5, 10 of these cores. If you need to swap something out, it's modular. So, one of them goes down. It's not like a tokamak which is continuous, and you've got one of them. If you need to service that thing, the whole plant comes down. Or it's not like a large fusion reactor. So, the modularity of it is key. You swap out your inner electrode, but nine out of 10 of his buddies are still running. Or you can have - and this is another application - is a much smaller, just your 200 megawatt core. So, you can think about microgrid. You can think about remote applications. You can think about one skyscraper. You can think about different applications. And of course, you can also think about space travel, and propulsion, which is another key advantage of the Z-pinch. But that's maybe another topic.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, you're pumping all this current through. Is there - I understand that you don't have magnets as part your system - but is there a magnetic moment created in the system?

Ben Levitt
I mean, during operation, so this is pulse?

Bret Kugelmass
I x j type stuff, that type thing.

Ben Levitt
Right, that's what the confinement is, is the plasma current, axial along the Z-direction crossed - I say this word cross, that's vector multiplication there - crossed with the confining azimuthal magnetic field. That's what gives you this j cross b force, this radially inward pinch? Is that the question?

Bret Kugelmass
Yes, but I guess I wanted to understand, so you've got this- you're going to have this at the 200 megawatt level, so you're gonna have like 200 megawatts worth of magnetism also being created. What's the effect on the structure of your reactor?

Ben Levitt
Good point. Yeah, you want to have non-ferromagnetic materials, but also the field is very local. The field is- the pinch, for example, is like I said, sub millimeter. So, the field if you solve it - excuse me, again - is zero on axis, it goes up to its peak at the pinch radius sub millimeter, and then dies away.

Bret Kugelmass
You're saying it's perfectly counterbalanced, even at those higher levels, like the 200 megawatt level of current?

Ben Levitt
In terms of like instabilities or something like that?

Bret Kugelmass
I just mean, where are the forces- like, if there you have this magnetism - for every force, there's an equal and opposite reaction type - where's all that force going? I understand it's going to confine something, but that means there's also like a structural material that has to support that level of magnetism also, right?

Ben Levitt
Well, it's all so self-consistent, right? The current itself is creating that magnetic field. Certainly, if you have-

Bret Kugelmass
Doesn't that magnetic field, doesn't it push back on the wires, the electrodes in some way?

Ben Levitt
Well, it pushes back. I mean, you could think of the plasma - I mean, just let's pretend it's solid. So, let's say you have 100 kiloamps going through a solid wire. Those kink instabilities and those sausage instabilities would be doing something to that, and it would be bending metal.

Bret Kugelmass
Exactly. That's what I'm saying. So, you have 200 megawatts worth of bending metal energy in your reactor?

Ben Levitt
Yeah. So, you don't have it at that location? For sure. That's why you don't have a solid.

Bret Kugelmass
But you have to build something around it, is what I'm trying to get to, right? You have to build a wall around your reactor that has enough steel in it that's capable of withstanding-

Ben Levitt
Non-ferromagnetic stainless steel is the outer chamber and you're not going to have anything like that. And then, of course, the fields are much smaller at that wall. We can put that wall wherever we want again, and that comes down to the fact that there's no external magnetic fields. Because your external magnetic fields for a tokamak, you want them as close as possible, but uh oh, there are all those neutrons, and there's all that heat and you have to have the breeding material in between. You have to place that all together the best you can. For us, we can place the outer wall wherever we want, because there's no external magnetic field. You can optimally place it as far as you want. And in fact, the outer wall is not anywhere close, if we want, to the pinch. It's quite a ways out, at least an order of magnitude out. The field is way down at that point. You're not bending anything. If you do have anything close to it, yeah, metal is going to see that and it's going to not like it. We've seen bent pieces of metal and we try to avoid that.

Bret Kugelmass
You've seen them at the laboratory scale, at the very small power scale.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, at the laboratory scale.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that's what I was trying to get to. I'm trying to imagine, as the system scales up, what are the other structural considerations in the system that you have to define? I always like to think about, okay, so, great. I'm actually assuming that we've got the physics worked out. I'm already jumping two steps ahead. How do we deal with material properties like corrosion? How do we deal with the structure of the system? And then can we start conquering those issues in parallel with some of the remaining physics?

Ben Levitt
I would say, yeah. I love the fact that you're jumping past the physics. And I hope that's totally right. We still have a few things to work out, but we're on a good trajectory. As far as engineering, and as far as material, the highest risk thing, I think, are, like I said, the plasma material interaction itself, so these inner electrodes and the durability of them. We're doing work right now on identifying durable materials that can withstand the heat and the bombardment and the ablation of the plasma for as long as you can. And again, for us, that is a smaller problem than most of our other friends, because it's just this one point, this one situation on the end of the inner electrode. But yeah, that's a key risk, and as far as on the materials and engineering side, that's one risk, I would say. And then another risk is the pulse power. What we're doing now is, we can we can take a shot, say, every 10 minutes and a key technology that we're working on is we need to do that more quickly. We need to develop pulsed power that has a repetition rate much faster, like at one hertz, or at 10 hertz or something like that, so you're doing it every second or every 10th of a second. That's a key engineering-

Bret Kugelmass
There would have to be a lot of pinches happening even in that 10 Hertz range to be able to get up to 200 megawatts though.

Ben Levitt
No, so the pinch exists in that- so, in every shot that you take is say 100 microsecond pinch. The current is dumped across that amount of time. The gas has put for that amount of time, the plasma exists for that amount of time, and then the neutron production and the heat is produced for that amount of time.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I guess what I'm wondering is how much of your fuel, like how much mass is converted to energy and within that one pinch.

Ben Levitt
Oh you mean the deuterium and tritium?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Like you got that one pinch, is it just one deuterium atom and one tritium atom?

Ben Levitt
Oh, no, no. This is extremely high densities of 10 to the 25 per cubic meter, I mean, very, very high density. Not solid matter density, but very high dense plasma, high density.

Bret Kugelmass
But per pinch, enough of those have to also line up - like the literal deuterium and the literal tritium - they have to pair.

Ben Levitt
The scalings that we've been talking about are all based on what we've already done and then small extrapolations from what we've already done. The amount of current and the amount of neutron production we've already seen, like I've said, we've already demonstrated 500 kiloamps of plasma pinch current.

Bret Kugelmass
How many watts is that, does that produce?

Ben Levitt
That's a good question. Like I said, the fusion power scales to the 11th power of current. So, it's minuscule at this point. If you go up to the -and I should know that - but when you go up to commercial, and you scale to 1.5, it's like around 1.2 to 1.5 mega amps, so a factor of two and a half to three from where we are now, that's what gives you, that's what scales to the 200 megawatt core. That's a direct scaling of current performance.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I was more thinking, what is the scaling of mass. You're gonna have to get- I understand how the current has this-

Ben Levitt
The amount of mass injected isn't changing. It's the density. The amount of current-when you increase current, that means more mass of plasma, that means just more plasma.

Bret Kugelmass
I see, so you're increasing the likelihood that any deuterium and tritium will find itself within that pinch?

Ben Levitt
Yeah, exactly. I remember Dennis White talking about the triple product, right? It comes down to that, again. It's the same game no matter what you're doing in terms of fusion. But the triple product: hot enough, for long enough, and dense enough. Each one has to be hot enough to make it happen. That's the reactivity. For long enough allows you more and more and more of them, and that's also the density part gives you more and more and more of them. When you go up in current, you do all three of those things in a pinch at the same time. You get it hotter, you get it denser, and then the time.

Bret Kugelmass
I get how the physics part scales. I'm more worried - or not worried - I'm just more interested in how the rest of the system scales, because you're talking about going up like six orders, or maybe nine orders of magnitude in terms of energy being produced at any given hour.

Ben Levitt
Well, that comes for free with the increase in current. Let's go back to that. You're increasing current by a factor of three, but because of the plasma physics, it's the same charges in there, but they're hotter, and the density is going up a lot more. That just means you're getting more and more fusion reactions within that plasma.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And then once again, I'm thinking outside of the literal reaction zone, but now you get these huge pulses of, let's say, neutrons that are being produced. How does a pulse of that many neutrons maybe interact with the materials as opposed to- yeah, I don't know.

Ben Levitt
Again, that's neutron interaction with the metal wall, which is a much simpler problem that neutron interacting with any type of magnet. It's really, it's interacting with a passive material. That means you have a choice of designing that material, fit for purpose, to do that. We have materials that are can withstand neutron bombardment. You have that in different industries, certainly, in the fission industry, as well. There's a lot of work over decades of all this, and I'm not a material scientist, but that means we have the freedom to design this electrode fit for purpose for exactly what you just said, to withstand that neutron bombardment.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that's awesome. In the fission industry, one of the things that they found was that not every material's perfect, right? On paper, you can say, Oh, this is 100% graphite, or 100% this or that, but everything including metal alloys. You go to your steel guy and you say, Hey, I want stainless steel. And he's like, Okay, great, here's some stainless steel. But not every stainless steel is the same, and it's got different, slightly different rates of alloy material. What the fission industry found that tripped them up for a while, was they were welding with a weld filler material that had a copper alloy. Then, under heavy neutron bombardment, what they would find is that the little copper bits would like to move, because you're rattling the lattice cage, and these things tend to aggregate towards each other, and then find and then create these pockets of copper, and that would embrittle the material. So, that was like an issue they've had to work over 10 years and that kind of stuff. But so many interesting lessons learned that I hope you guys are able to benefit from.

Ben Levitt
Material Science is hugely important in this. We try to recruit the best material scientists, but so is everybody right now. I mean, like I said, it's really a golden age in fusion. People are thinking of the physics, but just as many people are thinking about the engineering and about the material science, and those are the people. In fusion, if things don't go right, then it'll remain physics. But if things go right, then it's engineering. The trajectory of this effort is necessarily going to turn into nuclear engineering, right? Like I said, not a ton of physicists are working on fission right now, that's not a bad thing. That means the nuclear engineers are doing it. In fusion, that trajectory has to be the same. And so, electrical engineers and material science people, all these folks are coming on board in droves to to solve these problems.

Bret Kugelmass
And then, everything else you're saying is like a standard steam Rankine, convert energy DT.

Ben Levitt
Yeah, for neutronic fission, it's a standard. So, that's not reinventing the wheel

Bret Kugelmass
Which is great. And then I'm wondering, have you guys done now an economic analysis, where you say, let's just assume we've got the fusion reactor right. Can we price out - but knowing the characteristics of it - hey, we're assuming the reaction is going to scale up exactly what we want, we've got all the stability we want. Alright, now let's run the analysis. How much is material in it? What's the size of the room? What's the engineering to kind of protect the area from neutrons? Let's plug that into a power plant economic model and see what's the LCOE? What the cost of the electricity?

Ben Levitt
Right. Everybody has to have that model. It just goes along with the game and any stakeholder, any investor is gonna ask you about that. To tell the truth, I think a lot of it is a little bit of BS, but you do your best. There are a lot of unknowns. We've done that. And we've also hired some external assistance from engineers to look at that. We have an LCOE, we've calculated five cents per kilowatt hour. But I'm not gonna stand by that necessarily. There's a lot between here and then. I think if anybody tells you what their LCOE is in the fusion industry, you should treat it the same way. There's a lot of mileage between now and there and I think it's going to be fantastic. But the other advantages are clear. And it's going to be a trajectory, it's going to take maybe a little bit longer for the LCOE to get down there, but it's going to get down there. And I can quote that to you, but I'm gonna put a big asterisk on there, just to be honest,

Bret Kugelmass
That's fine. I think that's a fine place to start. Also seems to make sense, given other similar capital, infrastructure projects.

Ben Levitt
Everybody can go through that, everybody goes through that analysis and we all make similar assumptions. But there are huge unknowns there still, and it's still early days in terms of that.

Bret Kugelmass
And then I guess, last question on this front, just because in the fission industry, it's such a such a nightmare dealing with the regulators. Does the NRC get involved because of all the neutrons?

Ben Levitt
Yep, definitely. There's a lot of effort going on right now with the NRC and there's this budding lobbying group, which is just sort of starting for fusion. Gosh, it's on the tip of my tongue, the FIA and the fantastic guy who's running it right now, I wish I could mention his name. Anyways, there's a lot of work now trying to learn from what fission went through, and is still going through, and will go through and try to avoid that, learn from it. The problem for fusion is going to be to communicate the differences, not just to the regulatory bodies, but also to the public. There's a lot of fear. A lot of it is unfounded, even on the fission side. My point of view, I'm on the side of fission. We have the solution to the carbon problem right in front of our eyes, hello. There's a lot of fear, so we need to communicate. It's hard to imagine the fission is gonna recover fully from this perception, whether it's warranted or not, but fusion has to learn from that and we've got to do a good job of teaching the public. There are some key differences, though. There's a lot less danger. We can't go critical. It's not a chain reaction. We don't have long-lived isotopes for tens of thousands of years. There are a lot of key differences we need to communicate to regulatory bodies, so that it's not regulated in the same way. Right now, if you didn't do anything, it might be regulated the same way. But we need to get it to a point where it's regulated more like an accelerator. The amount of radiation is going to be less at a tokamak then say you're producing at like a light source, or an accelerator facility that already exists today.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I think, though, the concern of the regulators isn't just the radiation, it's literally just the amount of neutrons produced. And fusion actually, probably - I know it does -exceed, on a per energy basis, it exceeds fission in terms of neutrons produced. I guess my question would be on the neutrons produced source, the regulators are constantly worried about, let's say, proliferation issues, because we have a lot of neutrons, you hold up a blanket of depleted uranium next to it, all of a sudden you've got plutonium. Are those part of the conversations in terms of your engineering as well? How do we design this thing to be proliferation-

Ben Levitt
I mean, there's no proliferation danger here. What are you going to do with- I mean, in any kind of fusion reactor - and by the way, this is a stiff competition, we have a lot, but if anybody else wins it, fantastic, great. I mean, everybody just wants fusion to be to commercialized. Just wanted to throw that out there. But in any of these configurations, like I said, there are no proliferation issues here. There's no issue for some nefarious person stealing radioisotopes, for even creating a dirty bomb, or anything like that.

Bret Kugelmass
I wouldn't be worried about it. I would just be worried about all the extra neutrons being-

Ben Levitt
Those are short-lived. I mean, for radiation, you're worried about long-lived radioisotopes.

Bret Kugelmass
I think the concern - at least from the regulators, how they've expressed it to me - is, if you have a production of neutrons, you can use that, like your blanket right now could essentially, part of the blanket could be replaced with like a uranium-238 panel, and that uranium-238 panel over time would be a plutonium-239 panel. That's what the regulators have expressed, to me at least, is their proliferation concern, specifically with anything that creates abundant neutrons.

Ben Levitt
Okay, well, I don't claim to be a nuclear engineer, that sounds like a pretty big ask from- that sounds really tricky to do. The nuclear proliferation on the fission side is obvious. You have a nuclear power plant, you don't know whether they're using it for enrichment and for which purpose. It's very hard to differentiate. This is a very different situation here, where you'd have to completely re-engineer the way a fusion power plant would work in a way that I think would be quite obvious from the outside. But again-

Bret Kugelmass
I only bring it up, because the fission people say the same thing. I probably agree in both in both cases, that you have to look at the specific circumstances. The problem is the regulatory effort to prove it. The regulators make the fission community pay hundreds of millions of dollars just to prove the thing that you and I would say, Hey, this is pretty obvious.

Ben Levitt
I totally agree. And we have a lot of work ahead of us in communication, both to regulatory bodies and to the public. Like I said, there are a lot of examples of fantastic technologies out there that aren't used or aren't employed only because of public perception, not because they don't work. Fission comes in that category. Germany, Japan, all across this country, California, shutting down fission plants. You take out a two gigawatt fission plant in California, that's equivalent to all of their other renewables. What's your plan, guys? What are you going to do about your CO2 problem, California? Japan, you don't have any other resource? What is your plan? Germany, you're just buying, you're just kind of asking China to do it for you, just offsetting your carbon issue to other countries. I'm a proponent of all the above. I'm in favor of renewables, solar and wind, and that's all part of it. I think fission is still going to be part of it. But fusion is a game changer, like no other. I really feel - and this sounds lofty and maybe naive - but I feel like, once you get to fusion, it's really humanity 2.0, or 4.0, or whatever they call it, right? Everything else becomes optional at that point. You don't necessarily need anything else. It'll still have everything else for a while, but that really opens up the future in terms of abundant, carbon free, low radioactive energy- abundant fuel. Not only that, it helps us. We're not doing a great job as stewards of this planet. If we want to survive, we may have to get off of it one day. Fusion allows you to do that. I can't really see a future humanity, in general - at least if you want to look ahead a few 100 years - without having fusion. That's the way I think of it. That's why I'm doing this. We'll have a mix of other sources for quite a while to come, but I think this has to be the future.

Bret Kugelmass
Ben Levitt, everybody.

Ben Levitt
Thanks a lot.

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