May 22, 2023
Charlie Cole [00:00:59] Hi, everyone. I'm Charlie Cole, and you're listening to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. Today, we're here with Michael Binderbauer, who's the CEO of TAE Technologies. Michl, welcome.
Michl Binderbauer [00:01:10] Thank you for having me.
Charlie Cole [00:01:12] Thanks for coming on. I'd love to get started with the sort of classic Titans conversation topic, which is, where'd you grow up? Tell me a little bit about you as a kid. Did you have an interest in science growing up? What sort of hobbies and classes did you like as a kid?
Michl Binderbauer [00:01:26] Yeah, I definitely was interested in science from early childhood on. I grew up in Austria in a very bucolic village in the vineyards south of Vienna. Far from what you would think of in California and science and all the stuff I do today. But my interest strongly was triggered probably, well earliest, just on my own. But in school it started with the first physics course. It was about sixth grade or so. And I remember it was the first or second lecture of that year, and we all were like, "What really is physics?" We didn't quite have an understanding of it. And the teacher had this rock out and said, "What's the volume of this rock?" And I start thinking, "Okay, well I could approximate it with spheres. I could add all these up," or something like that, the simple things we'd learned in geometry then.
Michl Binderbauer [00:02:16] Started to do a little bit of work, and then after 10 minutes, she broke us off and she said, "Did you guys get any numbers?" We were like, "Well, we're working on it." And then she said, "Let me show you in two seconds how you can measure this." And she put it in a beaker with water and then the displaced water, she measured that and we're like, "Wow." And I started thinking about it and said, "This is so cool. This is a different way of looking at the world." It gets to the very sort of fundamental things, but reduced to some really practical stuff, and I got hooked.
Michl Binderbauer [00:02:44] And from then on, it didn't take very long. I built an optics lab in the bedroom. My parents were out... My dad was out on the business trip. He came back. He almost ran into the new walls in the room. I wanted a light-type environment to optics stuff. So, I was definitely then getting deeper into physics as a hobby beyond what got taught in school. And that was inspirational, but then on my own, doing all sorts of stuff. So yes, very early. Definitely.
Charlie Cole [00:03:18] Well, I kind of want to hear more about this optics lab. What were you hoping to achieve with this setup?
Michl Binderbauer [00:03:24] I was just trying to study the kinds of things that you would read in the books, the early guys exploring lenses and virtual images and things like that. This was before the days of cheap lasers or anything. This was always sort of a dream that one day maybe I could own a laser. But it was just simple stuff with lamps and apertures and lenses. And I built some projectors just as a hobby to see how you can get images off a book projected on the wall and things like that. And then, I got the telescopes from there and started to get excited about astrophysics. So, that was sort of the next step.
Charlie Cole [00:04:01] Yeah, astronomy and physics have a really cool connection in that way. And I remember from my physics classes, I had this really great teacher who was also a historian. He would always frame science around its history, and astrophysics was a great place to start because people have been looking at the stars for millennia. That's where trigonometry started and people extrapolated a lot just from stars.
Michl Binderbauer [00:04:25] Yeah, so those were exactly the kinds of things I did. That was the anchoring. And in fact, the day that we did the little rock experiment, I sort of knew I was going to work in this area somehow or do something in it. But then, it focused pretty quickly, actually. Astrophysics became the area that I had the most affinity to. And that ended up shifting only, actually, in college, eventually. Or actually, at the end of college and going to graduate school where I started to... Well first of all, I was interested in stars and stellar evolution. And so, it wasn't far-fetched to want to be interested in fusion as a sort of a... Not applied product for a reactor, but from a conceptual idea on how stars work, on the innards and so on. And so, that was one connection.
Michl Binderbauer [00:05:16] And then frankly, the thing that I think triggered mostly was thinking of practical stuff. It's one thing to do ivory tower work and produce papers, but I also had a knack for applied. My dad was a non-physicist; he was a business guy and he was a serial entrepreneur. But I saw the practical side of developing things that make a difference in the world. And so, there was always that sort of... I wasn't left-handed with screwdrivers. And so, it sort of always came in my head that maybe the idea of working on an interface between what's really hardcore science and math and you can cut your teeth on, but you also have something that reduces to something practical.
Michl Binderbauer [00:05:56] And so, it was in the late stages of college... I'd actually applied for mostly astrophysics programs, when that change occurred. And one big advantage I had, I was an undergraduate at UC Irvine, and I befriended Norman Rostoker. And Norman became the guiding light, ultimately. And the shift occurred, frankly, because I wasn't happy with my choice of graduate school. The reason's too far off the topic here, but I decided that at that point, "I've sort of made a mistake." And I ran into Norman right at the end of senior year, and he said, "Well, why don't you work with me for a while? And if you don't like it, then you can always pivot some place." And that sort of got me, then, totally shifted. Within weeks, I knew this was what I really wanted to do.
Charlie Cole [00:06:44] Do you want to chat maybe a little more about who Norman is and what your guy's relationship is? For myself, but also the viewers who don't know as much in-depth.
Michl Binderbauer [00:06:53] So, Norman Rostoker was a giant of our field of fusion and plasma physics in general. I always consider him sort of one of the five of the high priests of the field or the founders. I mean, there was a group of guys back all the way into the late '50s, early '60s, that began laying the foundation for this field. There are a lot of theoretical underpinnings that haven't overlapped with solid-state theory or kinetic theory. He was one of those guys who did a lot of theoretical work underneath. But again, also a person that had a very anchored sense of practicality and things in the lab. He maintained a lab while he was a first-class theoretician. He maintained a very good-sized experimental lab. And, I always say you can't get a Ph.D. in this field without suffering a lot of the stuff he discovered.
Michl Binderbauer [00:07:44] That wasn't clear to me when I was an undergraduate. I wasn't a famous guy in the field or anything, I was just sort of wanting to learn a little bit. And if you knew him... This was the wonderful thing about him, super approachable. Extremely smart, of course. And so, as an undergraduate, it was hard to keep up with him. That's for sure. Even as a graduate student, it was tough. But he didn't make you feel inferior or anything. He was always super approachable, just the most gentleman, human being you can imagine. So, that was inspirational alone from a human quality perspective.
Michl Binderbauer [00:08:14] But it was only after a while that I realized, "Man, this guy is one of the top people in this field." And he wouldn't show that, again, because he was very humble in his interactions with people, and approachable. Anyhow, it was a wonderful time. Graduate school still ranks as, probably, the best part of my life because I didn't have to worry about raising capital and making sure that the lights stay on and all the kind of mundane but super important things that maintain a business. In those days it was purely about what fancies you to work on and to dive into it with gusto. And so, those years were fantastic and he is a mentor. He became a second father figure to me.
Michl Binderbauer [00:08:55] My dad was the non-scientist. I learned a lot about business and perseverance and how you live life, in that sense. But yeah, Norman had some of those traits as well. He was also a very "never give up" kind of guy. But he was, obviously, a lot more the academic. And so, it was the blend between those two sort of guiding figures in my life that was very helpful for me. But yeah, Norman certainly ranks as one of the most outstanding individuals I ever met in my life, and I don't think it will ever come that there's somebody else that could sort of supersede or beat that. I mean, it's a unique gift if you're given that, that to meet somebody of that caliber and you develop such a very deep friendship.
Charlie Cole [00:09:38] Yeah, that's amazing. Certainly a titan of the field. So then, moving along in the timeline, grad school was also UC Irvine, or?
Michl Binderbauer [00:09:47] Yeah, so I'd say it was never designed to be that way. I had absolutely no preconceived knowledge that I was going to stay there, at all. In fact, as I said, I applied everywhere else, but. It ended up that it was the relationship with him. And this project which started, of course, as me being super naive about what fusion is in terms of the reactor scenario. I knew quite a bit about it in stars at that point, but not on how you would build a terrestrial reactor or the concept around confinement in magnetic confined systems. And so, yeah, it happened purely by this coincidence, developing this really nice, not just friendship, but working relationship. And the birth of this entire concept we're now building was all kerneled at that time, in a way.
Charlie Cole [00:10:38] Yeah. So then, after grad school, did you stay on researching at UC Irvine? What's sort of your timeline post-schooling, especially that pivot into the more commercial, business approach?
Michl Binderbauer [00:10:52] Well, during college I helped my dad with his third company. He had a whole bunch of technology problems and he was doing infection control in hospital settings, mostly in surgical areas. And this was sort of the advent where they were introducing a lot of electronics together with new chemistry for some of these disinfectant products and so on. And so, I helped him with that as a kind of hobby thing. And of course, it makes you pick up about business and productization, how do you turn a concept from a breadbox into a real functional product that you can mass produce, right? So, I started to get into those things mainly through osmosis as a hobby. And it wasn't my main calling. I think in graduate school I probably spent maybe 10 or 20% of the time at most helping my dad on the side. But most of it was obviously on what I eventually got fully into.
Michl Binderbauer [00:11:46] I stayed on for a little bit as a postdoc. We had some money from the US Navy to do some reactor studies in sort of a naval context, which is obviously very visionary. You couldn't even do it terrestrially; you still can't. And so, the idea of putting it on ships sort of felt almost pathetically crazy. But we wanted to look at what would it be like. How do you interact with the smaller environment? How would you package it? Is it feasible downstream, and so on? And that's what drove me to stay for a few more years. We did quite some interesting work there. In fact, that was very informative for me, for the entire concept.
Michl Binderbauer [00:12:27] And at that same time, trying to raise what academics do, money through appeals to federal funding sources, basically. And that didn't go too well, then. You can talk about why that is. I mean, there are a lot of reasons. Sometimes it's just because you don't have a good idea, but I don't think at all this was the case then. It had more to do with the micro environment. Energy was sort of plentiful. Fusion wasn't getting a lot of extra love from anybody. And this wasn't just true in the US, this was true internationally. In particular, ITER, which I don't know if your listeners would know, but that's the big international tokamak project. This was iteration one. Everybody refers to that now is ITER Heavy, but, I think, the new one isn't light, either.
Michl Binderbauer [00:13:11] This was during Clinton's second term and the US decided to pull out. And I think that was a good decision because it was overwhelmingly applauded at that point, already. And so, when the flagship project disappeared, it sort of sucked the wind out of the entire field to a degree. And there was sort of soul searching. Well, what should be the domestic program, and so on. And here we were showing up with now yet another new idea and wanted considerable funding. It was just not going to happen. And so, we ended up, with trial and error, realizing over a protracted period... And again, Norman wasn't a guy who'd give up easy... That wasn't going to work.
Michl Binderbauer [00:13:47] And so, what I did on the side to sort of survive, I started a little consulting business. I had some all odds kind of things. I mean, I had a contract, a little bit of work with NASA. This was on rocket propulsion for electric thrusters. So, that was a little related to what I was working on in graduate school and sort of what I wanted to do in the fusion space. The other stuff was odd things. I was doing some X-ray work on medical X-ray systems with the US part of Siemens. I had a bunch of things.
Michl Binderbauer [00:14:23] And then, finally, TAE started to nucleate out of a group of people that we had cultivated relationships with at UCI, and it ended up becoming a real entity. At which point I dropped out of those sort of survival things, the contracts. I think it was around '99, 2000, that it became a full going concern on just as. To be clear, I never dropped fully out. It was sort of moonlighting at night and on weekends. I'd be working on this stuff. We'd write business plans, we'd do all those kinds of things. But it wasn't it was really clear we had at least some friends and family money for a first year's worth of work that I dropped the other stuff. That's how it started.
Charlie Cole [00:15:11] Wow, very cool. I think I'll ask one more sort of bridge question before we dive into TAE, which I'm really excited about as well, which is that you mentioned ITER. I think you're probably one of the best historians, most knowledgeable person about the early history of fusion. Maybe, maybe. I'd love to just hear, for viewers especially, some three minute story of the origins of fusion from early labs up to, maybe, we'll say, 1999 and sort of where TAE enter the picture.
Michl Binderbauer [00:15:40] Oh, God, that's tough to do in three minutes. But I mean, basically, it started, frankly, really, as a a natural follow-on to the development of the hydrogen bomb, sadly enough. I mean, that was a rousing success. Sort of negative, but nonetheless, it worked. I mean, I knew a lot of the guys... I mean, Norman was from that era, coming of age at that time. And a lot of the people who contributed there around Teller, Edward Teller and the group that developed the H-bomb in the US, all thought fusion was going to be something that we'll bag in a few years, if even less.
Michl Binderbauer [00:16:20] In fact, a good friend of mine, Russell Kulsrud, he still is an emeritus professor at Princeton, he moved there with Lyman Spitzer and the program around what became Project Matterhorn, which was sort of classified fusion energy product going. He moved to Princeton on a temporary basis. He said, "Look, I didn't even bother to move my family," because he thought it was like a six, nine month deal. And when I go back, well, little did he know, he got stuck and spent his career and he's now in his 90s. So, the arc is long and it's difficult. And I think what happened is early on, people underestimated the complexity between both the science being difficult, but also the engineering or, I should say, the technology components necessary. And I think when we start talking about TAE next, it's a microcosmic reflection of that overall truth.
Michl Binderbauer [00:17:15] I think we as individuals going into it at whatever time, always had all the naive notion on how quick we could do something. And so, the early guys thought that, and then came up lots of trials. I mean, tokamak wasn't the first thing, right? People built mirror machines and pinch experiments and so forth. And Norman has... You can lace it through his entire career, the involvement in all these things.
Michl Binderbauer [00:17:38] And then come tokamaks, of course. And the Russians certainly did better with that confinement cage than anybody else. Which is why then very quickly... First there was disbelief in the West that something could be superior by a considerable margin. It would be years. So, people sort of didn't trust it. The British went and took measurements on that Kurchatov machine and came back and said, "No, it's true. It is better." And so, like mushrooms, tokamaks basically appeared across the world in labs very quickly at that point. And then, the field sort of got a little stuck on this one major concept dominating.
Michl Binderbauer [00:18:17] And Norman always kept an eye open. He did quite a bit of work on the mainstream stuff all his life, but he also had this idea that there were some wrinkles with this that he could clearly identify and he wanted to see if there were ways to improve on those. And that led to exploring quite broadly outside of the box, basically. And he and a few that did that sort of developed the fringe of other things that then used to be called alternative concepts. And then, the majority, of course, congregated on the tokamak, and the field made enormous progress. Given how long we've had it... We don't have a reactor yet, but the complexity's super high. And so, there is continuous progress. And you can look at this and you can map it, whether you map it in terms of some of these critical triple products or something to get to a net energy production. But we are on a very good slope to get there, it just turns out it's super hard.
Michl Binderbauer [00:19:12] And I think the other thing is that funding never came at the level where it just flooded the market with the necessary resources to really have sufficiency to do it well. And I think we gave it enough so that it always limped along. And it did actually remarkable for that; it's my opinion. I think that if it had gotten funded more, we probably could be further. And this was one of the reasons why I felt if we were to do this privately, that we could probably be much more focused with capital and quicker to move the needle. Anyhow, it's not a perfect... We could spend an hour on that topic. It is interesting, I'm sure, for a historian, a fascinating thing to look at. How many data ends, how many tries, and how people sort of stuck to it with persistence to get to where we are today.
Charlie Cole [00:20:03] Totally. And it has that sort of shared path with fission of this complex origin of war and death and sort of the promise and the Atoms for Peace program, which is such a sort of unique narrative in the nuclear space.
Michl Binderbauer [00:20:18] It is. It's also interesting, when you think about... This is, maybe, one comment to add. You know, height of the Cold War, right? Gorbachev and Reagan decided to start ITER as a joint project. And it's also true, even preceding that... Fusion sort of very quickly became a declassified topic. Because it's so complex, that's why the Soviets shared their discovery, if you will, of the tokamak confinement characteristics and the West assimilated it. And there was a lively exchange, actually, despite all the global saber rattling, all the time. Underneath it, people worked together very efficiently, actually, because of the complexity.
Michl Binderbauer [00:20:58] And I think from the political side, nobody worried much because people realized that it's going to be so far out that, in a way, it was discounted. Hence, you got a lot of leeway to work across the curtain and do stuff. And so, in a way, yes, it's actually nice because it brought out the best in humanity. We're all striving to make the world a better place and working together to sort of slay this difficult dragon, you know? I mean, that was kind of the thing. So, I think it's a very nice theme and it's totally true for fusion. Still holds true today, by the way.
Charlie Cole [00:21:31] Yeah, yeah. The collaboration is there. Okay, now let's dive into TAE. We've haven't gotten too, too technical, so I think this might be an opportunity to chat a little bit about TAE as well as your technology, whether it's, maybe, defining inertial confinement or magnetic confinement for some viewers and sort of where TAE sits today in the fusion world and what you guys are working on right now and what your goals and targets are. So, yeah, tell us about TAE.
Michl Binderbauer [00:22:02] It's quite a taxonomy now because of the history we just discussed. A lot of people tried lots of different things. But in principle, I mean, there's different ways you could categorize it, but I always think of it as there's sort of two big pathways to fusion. One is inertial and the other one is what we call steady-state magnetic-based confinement. In all cases, what do you have to get to? First, you have to get to high temperature, high packing ratios or high-density, and you've got to hold this state long enough that these particles have a good finite probability that they actually fuse together.
Michl Binderbauer [00:22:37] Of course, we know from nuclear physics, all the way to the early part of last century, what those conditions need to be. So, on the earliest day, people knew exactly where the bar is. What was underestimated, how difficult it is to do that. And the two pathways, one was sort of replicating, in a way, what worked in the bomb, fast implosion, violent burst of energy out, over. And then, you don't worry so much about holding it for long periods of time. These can be measured like in the NIF or in laser experiments, it's nanoseconds where they really get the peak contraction of everything and then they release the fusion gain and then it recycles.
Michl Binderbauer [00:23:16] In a steady-state fusion, it's quite different. We are operating at much lower density, and we have to hold things together longer to get the same sort of output and capability to burn. But it opens up a different pathway to a different technology base. So, instead of using compressive means and sort of bomb, inertial holding things together, here it's long-term scale stuff. You use electromagnets to create the magnetic cage and then the heating and everything is more gentle, but it's running steady-state.
Michl Binderbauer [00:23:48] And the advantage that has, of course, when you think of a power plant... It's sort of like the difference between, I guess, in a car engine where the cylinders fire individually and then it gets into sort of continuous motion. You either work more on the continuous side... And sometimes technology likes that, actually. In fact, I believe firmly that switching things on and off introduces a higher chance for eventual fatigue and failure. We know this from electronics. We know this from just simple switches on your wall. It's the action of on and off where a lot of stress builds up, electric and mechanical, and that ages things. Which if you leave things on, not at the sort of high conditions where it constantly is at the edge of its engineering space, but where it runs somewhat steadily and then it doesn't suffer the fluctuations, there's a advantage to that. And so, it's for that reason, one sort of replicating the bomb and the other one being more steady-state that those two things exist in broad spectrum. And I would say, probably, the larger chunk of effort is in the steady-state confinement area. You find more diverse concepts there and more labs working on it. But by no means to say it's all of it. It is developed sort of in both pathways.
Michl Binderbauer [00:25:00] Now, in our space... So, TAE is clearly in the magnetic confinement space. Now, when you want to do that space, you have the dominant feature being the tokamak, which is a little looking like a donut, magnetic confinement concept. And we are distinctly different. Ours is called a field reverse configuration. Just to put a small fine point on the difference, in the tokamak concept, you're using a lot of externally created magnetic field coming from the electromagnets to constrain everything. And there's two functions, typically, that has to provide. One is stability and control over this gas ball that you're heating up, this little fireball, this sort of chunk of star matter. And then, the other thing is that you want to compress it to affect the conditions that you can get energy out. And so, the force balance, if you will, between the hot stuff that wants to push out and the magnetic field, that holds it in check. And so, both of those functions are fulfilled by the caging system, by the magnets.
Michl Binderbauer [00:26:01] Now, in the tokamak, that's all done with the external magnets for both purposes. And in fact, a lion's share of the field energy and the enlistment there for electrical energy and all the structural things is there to control the stability, and so on. And in fact, the laser part of the magnetic pressure that actually sort of gives you the burn or whatever. And so, we have a metric that we call beta. It's a ratio between magnetic and kinetic pressure, and it allows you to categorize these confinement concepts a little bit. And in the case of tokamaks and devices like that, it's the kinetic pressure over the magnetic pressure, it's magnetic pressure dominated. And so, you have a machine where that beta ratio is 10% maybe or so, or maybe under 10%.
Michl Binderbauer [00:26:53] On the other hand, you have the FRC, which is sort of at the extreme other end, which is where that pressure ratio is close to one or 100%, somewhere in the 90% range. And what that means is that a lot of the magnetic field, actually, is made by the plasma itself. So, instead of enforcing everything from the outside like the exoskeleton of a bug, it's sort of more like a mammal, where the bones are on the inside and the soft tissues around it. And so, it's the plasma currents that actually make a large chunk of the confinement fields. It's a self-created field. They're still external field applied, but it's a much smaller amount of it.
Michl Binderbauer [00:27:31] And so, that gives you a very different perspective. It tells you up front that the amount of magnets, and if it's eventually a commercial system, cost, in such is much lower. The downside, of course, is that the system you're caging kind of creates the field that cages itself. So, you can easily see instability could be a big problem here. If something goes wrong with flows in the plasma, then the magnetic fields that self-generate from that are off. That leads to more adverse flows in the plasma, and so the feedback loop runs away. If you do all this with the magnets from the outside, presumably you have an independent way of caging that. And that's quite a big difference.
Michl Binderbauer [00:28:09] In fact, early in the field, people failed with the FRC. Failed is too strong, maybe, but realized quickly that it was rather unstable. And that's why the field never got as far and as quickly to scale as the tokamaks did, because a lot of understanding and technology, frankly, in the end, and how to feedback, actively feedback and control these things, was lacking. Technical equipment was lacking, the software and how you do that, the control systems and things, all these things were lacking.
Michl Binderbauer [00:28:42] And this was the state when we entered, and we entered because we thought that it had super attractive economics if you can make it work. You don't have all these magnetic fields, much lower field to begin with. And a lot of these magnets, they're not toroidally interlinked. They're simple, like a solenoid bound on a cylinder, so it's much easier, conceptually, from an engineering perspective. And ultimately, you would get out of a machine like that, because of this high beta ratio, you would get per volume in which you react, you will get a lot more power out. And so, the FRC has a superior, almost 10 times higher power output, than a comparable tokamak. Sorry, it's actually 100 times, because it scales by beta squared. So, a 10 times difference in beta makes about 100 times difference in output. So, it's very attractive if you can make it stable and behave.
Michl Binderbauer [00:29:36] And that became very quickly our understanding that it's the Achilles heel, and we have to fix that. And so, TAE got stuck, then, in working on those things. But back to the taxonomy. So, you've got, on one side, the inertial confinement, lasers and stuff, the steady-state magnetic confinement in there, tokamaks and other things, and somewhere there's this FRC, and that's us.
Charlie Cole [00:29:57] Yeah. So, a quick question I have in there, just a technical clarification, is how is the magnetic field generated in the plasma? Is it just in the protons, the electron differential of the hydrogen? What's generating the magnetic field in the plasma?
Michl Binderbauer [00:30:12] So first of all, the plasmas, we all work with. I mean, today in the lab, everybody works with hydrogen or different species of hydrogen, different isotopes. And when you ionize those, you get hot enough, anything that's on the order of a keV, or say a few million degrees, you're in an environment where most of the atoms no longer are neutral. So, you're yanking the electrons off. You have an ionic core, which is the positively charged nucleus, and around that is a free-flowing cloud of electrons that are negatively charged. So, that's a plasma, first of all.
Michl Binderbauer [00:30:45] And then, you now can interact with these because they're all charged particles. So, they react to electric forces, they get guided by magnetic forces and you can accelerate them, slow them down, move them around. And they also move on their own, of course, and create all sorts of interesting effects on the inside. So, what happens in an FRC is very much like if you... Most people will remember, probably somewhere from physics class, the classic Oersted Experiment. You run current down the wire, you put a magnetic compass there or a needle, and it deflects because it's a self-generated magnetic field from the current in the wire. So, the plasma does the same thing. It's in fact, an incredibly good conductor. When you get to the higher temperatures, like in the fusion reactor, you essentially have a superconducting environment. There's literally no frictional dissipation anymore. So, plasmas are very good conductors, and they can carry currents.
Michl Binderbauer [00:31:37] And so, if you induce, for instance, in our design, an axial flow of currents... So, let's start with a blob of plasma surrounded by a solenoidal magnetic field... So, it's a field down the middle, down a barrel. And you put this plasma in, and if I now introduce current through, for instance, I inject energetic particles or I twist this thing... There are various ways you can do those things, but just assume for a moment you can do some form of current flow... And you create an axial current flow, then that axial current flow creates an enveloping magnetic field around that flowing object, and that actually becomes your confining cage.
Michl Binderbauer [00:32:14] And then in the case of the FRC, you do this superimposed in this primordial magnetic field, and so you get this very interesting magnetic topology that has closed field lines around where your fuel sits. And then on the edge, there are open field lines that connect to the outside world, through the walls of the machine. And that turns out... It's actually very, very beneficial. It confines the fuel, but then if you burn material you get energetic byproducts coming out, and if those are charged and they will be funneled by the magnetic field towards the axial ends along those open field lines, which sort of are still running up and down the machine. And that creates a guide that you can collect those particles on the outside. We actually call this a natural diverter, diverter meaning flows of particles get diverted to the outside where you can exhaust them. Like, ash particles, which are like helium, right? You start with hydrogen, you make helium. How do you get the helium out? And that's a mechanism naturally built in our topology to do that.
Michl Binderbauer [00:33:15] Contrast the tokamak, for example, it's all confined. In order to get that out, they have these internal, small diverters, but those now are small surface areas with a lot of heat flow on and it's much more difficult. So again, back to the question about the self-generated currents. So, think of those like a stream of current flow around the axis and that generates enveloping magnetic field. And it's that field plus the primordial field that gives you the overall confinement.
Charlie Cole [00:33:40] Yeah, very cool. Yeah, I hadn't thought about the plasma as a superconductor. That's sort of interesting.
Michl Binderbauer [00:33:48] That's basically what it is. And at the time temperatures we operate at, they become essentially zero dissipation. We call those things collisionless, so they don't frictionally, in any way, interact, and it flows like a superconducting current.
Charlie Cole [00:34:01] Cool. We'll now take it to right now. We talked a little bit about the problems that TAE's working through and experimenting on and working out. What are the current experiments and projects you all are working on to sort of get to that next step?
Michl Binderbauer [00:34:17] Just to set the stage for that, so, what have we done? We started in 1998 as a company. Really in 2000, we really began doing lab experiments. I will admit I thought in five years we could build a reactor just like every guy that entered that field. You know, the earliest guys, as I was describing earlier, thought Project Matterhorn would be a six to nine month affair. It's still there in a way, or derivatives of it. So for us, the same.
Michl Binderbauer [00:34:40] And so, we began with a small step for small feat kind of approach. We built just a core to try to understand how do you make this FRC, how do you maintain it? Can you inject particles without them hurting that magnetic cocoon? Could you introduce a sort of violent burst of new energy and particles coming directionally from one side? That's an asymmetry. What does that do? So, we began building experiments to study these things beyond the theory and computational work that I'd done during my graduate years and others had done already, but we wanted to get closer and closer to how do you actually do that? Not on pencil and paper, but in the real world.
Michl Binderbauer [00:35:16] And so, we built these experiments, and by about 2010 or so, 2012, we had a couple of very anchoring things that we understood at that point. So, we had already, now, exhausted the time we'd given ourselves. It's like, "Okay, this is a lot harder." And what became clear very quickly is that in all of this... And to this day, the basic physics concept is fully alive as we had conceived it. I shouldn't even say we. Actually, Norman. I mean, I was a peon. But the idea that he had in his head that formed the basis for that, the physics of that was really, really clever and his intuition was spot on.
Michl Binderbauer [00:35:52] It was really the technology that lacked the doing of it. Obviously, the know how and how to apply that technology and make it all work, but a lot of it was technology. We needed fuel injectors to put high-energy particles in. Those accelerators didn't exist. The controls over how you tweak magnetic fields or disturbances and make sure they don't go out of hand, feedback, did not exist, both the hardware nor the software. We realized we needed new technology for pumping and vacuum creation. For this we wanted to reduce some of the what's called recycling. These are interactions between hot particles on the inside and the cold wall, where those fast moving particles hit the wall and release some cold stuff that then can come in and cool the plasma off further. It's sort of a vicious negative feedback loop. How do you prevent that?
Michl Binderbauer [00:36:42] So, we had to develop, as did others in the field... But for our unique topology, how do you spray coat with things like titanium, the inner surface, which is a very good gathering material for hydrogen so that it's out, it gets stuck, it can't release anything. How do you do all these things? Power supplies. We needed to be able to ramp up and down current at very high rates over very short time scales. So, at extreme power levels. How do you build power supplies that can do that? And because nobody in the world needed those extreme things, you couldn't off-the-shelf order them. You had to develop it. So, that was our journey.
Michl Binderbauer [00:37:16] So, fast forward now after five generations of very large machines... Think about two double-decker busses back-to-back, scaled stuff, 60,000 square foot machine hull. We built out ever-more powerful incarnations of the very same concept, but with refinements, continuously, of better technology and better operational mastery. And so, in 2019, I guess we had the sort of success point on the current generation of the machine, which we call Norman, actually, because Norman did pass away, sadly enough, in 2014 at Christmas. So, he didn't see that machine anymore. We used to call it C2W, and we decided, in his honor, to rename it Norman.
Michl Binderbauer [00:38:01] And so, Norman achieved, in 2019, a couple of really important performance criteria. First, it was able to pull plasma completely at will. And to be clear here, the timescales for which you win or lose the game are very well-defined and they're super short. Sadly enough, they're like a hundred millionth of a second. So, over 100 microseconds or so, everything goes kaput. So, you've got to win the game on that incremental timescale. Now, you can string those small timescales together for as long as you want, if you can master that. And so, if you build machines that last on the order of milliseconds, tens of milliseconds, you are a humongous margin beyond where it all would fall apart. And that's really what the goal was. We wanted to run a machine that at least could do on the order of 30 milliseconds of operations. And we wanted to get into a temperature regime where the physics of this environment is very similar to the physics in the reactor. In fact, it's the same physics base. The particles are frictionless, like I said earlier. They become really like a superconductor, essentially, and that's the reactor state. So, Norman needed to achieve that state, hold everything steady and controlled, and let us run for these, essentially, on the physics side, steady-state conditions.
Michl Binderbauer [00:39:21] That we achieved in 2019. And the temperatures there were about 30 million, 35 million degrees C, and so, we had it. And I wanted to go on and build the next machine. Well, then came COVID. And COVID put a brake on fundraising, a brake on being in the lab, doing anything, talking to supply chain. I mean, we eventually all got comfortable using Zoom more, but the early days were off, plus everybody thought it was going to be over soon. But it really delayed us by a bunch of years, actually, in that sense.
Michl Binderbauer [00:39:52] However, at the same time, because we had a pretty automated machine at that point... On this one, what I would say is we have among the best, if not the best, feedback control plasma physics experiment out there. We can ramp up and down current flows in accelerators, stop on hundreds of microsecond timescales, from zero to tens of megawatt. It is remarkable. The power supplies we built, the control methodologies we built are really exceptionally beautiful and functional, and you can run it pretty much remotely. It's a big control system. There are 80,000 electrified parts and they are controlled through software. And we can, through a VPN line, come in and talk to the control system as an operator and do things with a handful of technicians to keep everything running right. So, that's how through a good stretch of COVID, when California was in lockdown, we actually ran from at home versus sitting in on the machine. And only a handful of people, with full compliance, of course, was this big space. You put 10 people in, they're certainly socially distanced, right? We could do a lot of work.
Michl Binderbauer [00:40:55] And what happened, actually, is that through more and more training of the computer systems... We use a heavy dose of machine learning. We have a partnership with Google. We've now been nine years together in the trench, working on really sophisticated machine learning tools. And all this came together and allowed us to push Norman into a performance regime. We actually had built some headroom in. Engineers always know that physicists want to push the knob up on every dial that's available. And so, it was built with some headroom, but we never thought, honestly, we would exhaust that.
Michl Binderbauer [00:41:29] But we now did. We're now running at the edge of it's feasibility. I mean, if you were to crank it a little more, the plasma would blow out through the magnetic field and that's that. But the neat thing is, through this ever-more optimized operational figuring forward, we're now at the point where we run this thing at over 70, 75 million degrees, way beyond the top, more than a factor of two where we're supposed to operate. And that gets within the scratching distance of a DT burn environment, which is about 100 to 150 million degrees, depending on design point. And so, that gets you to where we're going next.
Michl Binderbauer [00:42:05] So, now with this all done, now with COVID sort of behind us, we've been out raising more money again. We closed $250 million last summer. We're doing a little bit more right now for operational purposes. But we're building Copernicus now, which is the next iteration. And that's supposed to get to a net energy demonstration in about three years. We just finished the construction of the building. We're beginning to start the machine construction as opposed to the building construction this summer. And it'll take us about two years or so, two and a half years, to build the machine.
Michl Binderbauer [00:42:39] I will say it's tougher right now because supply chains are stretched and the world is all different than three to five years ago. But we have a great team of people that know how to do such things and project management. And so, I'm very confident. In a few years we'll have the machine running, and then with all the tools we have now and the operational knowledge base that's developed, we should be able to get to 120, 150 million degrees, somewhere there. That will afford us an ability to show that we can get more energy out of the machine, minus taking into account if you were to convert that, you lose about 50% using a thermal conversion system. And then, compare what's there, residual, after the haircut. How does that compare to the total energy into the building? So, that's what we're up on next. This is going to be the "Kitty Hawk moment," if we can do that.
Charlie Cole [00:43:32] Yeah, wow. That'll be amazing. So, would you say that, structurally, the big difference between the Norman and now the Copernicus is the temperature you're getting up to?
Michl Binderbauer [00:43:41] Yes. I mean, there are a few other parameters, obviously, that go up, commensurately. I'll give you one. If you want to confine with higher kinetic pressure, you need more magnetic field. So, we're pushing magnetic field up. Not by a lot. We don't need superconducting magnets on that. We're going to run this thing for a few seconds only, so we're not going to run hours on it or anything like that. It'll run seconds. And it's going to run on hydrogen, so we're going to measure all the loss rates and the tradition of energy and particles and so on. And then, you can do, very easily, modeling that will show you what the power output would have been.
Michl Binderbauer [00:44:15] Now, this still may sound to the uninitiated, sort of fake. It really isn't. The field had three large tokamak experiments, actually in the late '90s, early 2000s, that were pushing into early stage burning plasmas. The US one and the European one, JET, in England, and TFTR at Princeton, operated on tritium fueling. The Japanese had an equivalent scaled machine called JT-60, and they ran on hydrogen only. And the nice thing was that, at the end now... At first people said the Japanese are not quite in the same league as the two Western machines. But today these are all considered equal quality burning plasma explorations. And the difference is that when the Japanese then did the simulation work in whatever they predicted... What you found in the two other experiments is true output in the setting with tritium in it, they agree. And so, now you have confidence you can model that nuclear physics aspect once you understand how good the confinement is.
Michl Binderbauer [00:45:11] And then, the upside is you don't irradiate your machine. So, the Japanese have upgraded that and they're the front running supplier of design points for ITER. They now have added the second layer, already, of superconducting magnets, all that stuff. TFTR was so radioactivated that they had to shut it down and saw it up and cart it out to a storage site. And JET had now again, tritium runs about a year ago or so, and they're now finally down. But it was a 20 year break, and they rebuilt a lot of the machine and had to also deal with the radioactivity.
Michl Binderbauer [00:45:42] So in a way, the Japanese model seems like it was a very efficient way to do it. And as a private company, and us ultimately being more interested in hydrogen-boron as opposed to tritium based, this is an intermediate, must secure step. But if we can do it without using tritium, then it's a lot easier not to get licensing and deal with all the complexity of radioactivited parts having to be serviced. That's the purpose, and that's the difference between Copernicus getting to the reactor conditions wholesomely versus Norman today, which is still a bit too cold.
Charlie Cole [00:46:16] Yeah, cool. So, now stepping sort of into that next step of the fusion as the sort of promise of clean energy for the world, what is the vision of then taking this net positive energy creation and turning it into electricity? I think this is something that I'm sort of personally curious about. Is it a a steam turbine? Are you using that thermal energy to just like boil water? How do we sort of take this reaction in this very specific environment and globalize it?
Michl Binderbauer [00:46:46] Yeah, so that's a great question. I hate to admit that in the first generation at the back end is James Watt's technology. Like you said, we're essentially boiling water, right? I mean, it's much more sophisticated these days, but basically, it's a steam engine to some degree. It's a thermal conversion system, Carnot efficiencies comes with it, et cetera. What's, however, also good about that is that it's a conventional back end, as the industry calls it. Nuclear fission, coal; they all run that way. And so, it's essentially the heat engine or the heat source that is rather esoteric and new and unique, but the back end is very similar.
Michl Binderbauer [00:47:28] Now, that's in Generation One. And when you think about it abstractly, what you have is, basically, a mini sun inside a metallic can. And what happens, in simple terms, for TAE, most of the energy comes off in the form of fast, energetic light. So, it's all soft X-rays, typically, is what the radiation would be from a plant with hydrogen-boron fueling. And that basic sort of photon field will be intercepted by the wall. So, the wall will heat up. As you know, shielding, X-rays... Soft X-rays are like the energy you have when you go for a dental X-ray. It's the exact same thing. And you know, they put a little light shield on you and you're fine. The shell, the metallic shell would literally be a quarter inch or so and stop most of the the photons, if not all, and within an inch of steel, everything is stopped. So, there's not ionizing radiation on the outside, but now you have to remove it. And so, the material gets hot at the shell and you pipe coolant through there and you extract it.
Michl Binderbauer [00:48:32] Now, there's a more elegant way to do that. And that I consider sort of Generation Two, which is where you take this concept to, what I would loosely call, solar cells on steroids. So, you line the interior wall with X-ray converters, essentially. And then, you can direct convert and get DC electricity. And we actually have three conceptual pathways that... When I say we're working on it, I have to be careful. That's not on the intensity or capitally important people facilitated to work on the fusion core. But it is something we are working on. It's beyond a hobby. It's a real, serious idea to develop Generation Two conversion capability.
Michl Binderbauer [00:49:15] And even if that isn't more efficient than the turbomachinery of a turbine and so on and the heat exchanger and steam generator, you do end up with less equipment and it could be solid-state. So, the cost point, the capital equipment is lower. Maintenance is much lower, even if the efficiency stays the same. But that's one of the big advantages of hydrogen-boron. In Generation Two, I think we can get to that. So, that's heat will eventually become electricity.
Charlie Cole [00:49:43] Yeah, exciting. Very cool stuff. And then, I guess this is the one other sort of future question. Maybe it is just a very different world, but is there a regulatory or licensing path for fusion, or does it just look so much different than fission because of, obviously very, very different safety concerns? What's the sort of logistic, legal, bureaucratic pathway to proliferation and scalability? I guess proliferation's not the right word to use, but scalability?
Michl Binderbauer [00:50:14] And that's something important, right? So I mean, I think there are two things to be said here. You mentioned proliferation, first of all, I think that's the more minor one. There really isn't a good proliferation potential here. And we've done a lot of work, actually, in the early going because investors used to ask this. If this can get into problems that way, then global deployment probably is impossible, right? It turns out it doesn't serve as sinister intents very well.
Michl Binderbauer [00:50:40] I mean, you can bore a hydrogen-boron facility, you could make nothing. If it were a tritium based system even, you'd make a little bit, but it's a lot more efficient to just take current, transuranic elements and run them through an enrichment process or something. It's a lot cheaper and more straightforward in comparison. So, I think nobody will take that on. They have to master a lot of weird and wild technology that is way beyond, so I think proliferation is really not an issue.
Michl Binderbauer [00:51:07] The other thing that's really important to realize when you think of safety is it cannot suffer a meltdown like you were conventionally thinking of in fission. It's not a chain driven process; in fact, it's an externally-driven process. If you stop the input, it seizes immediately. In fact, one of the things that makes it so hard, makes it ultra-safe. You have an intense interaction of these particles with the environment, indigenously, through wave particle interactions that lead to instabilities that kills... If you don't perfectly manage it, it kills itself in a heartbeat on the order of like a thousandth of a second. So, it has nature's perfect safety valve built right in. And that's a huge plus, right?
Michl Binderbauer [00:51:51] So, the idea of a Chernobyl or Fukushima or something like that in fusion isn't possible. It's much more likely that you will never make sufficient electricity because the thing goes down on you. And so, maintaining it is what's hard, but makes it safe. So, safety profile is extremely different for that reason. And so, the regulations you would expect should therefore be very different. And we saw the first indication of that in terms of, now, regulation that's affirmed in law in the UK. A few years ago, the UK decided to regulate this. And these are my words, I'm not a regulation specialist or attorney in this space. But it's sort of... In the US, the equivalent would be that you manage this between the EPA and OSHA, a plant like that. And so, that's where the Brits came out.
Michl Binderbauer [00:52:40] And we have about two years, now, of interactions with the NRC. And of course, they also studied the British process and the outcome and where they ended up. And then, the staff rolled up, late last year, sort of a three-pronged recommendation to the Commissioners. They said we could go down and regulate it, Part 50, like you do typical fission reactors, with the long cycle of getting a license. We could do it in a hybrid, where we accept that fusion has some positive attributes, but it's a mix. Or, if we want to be more progressive and really acknowledge that it is truly different, perhaps we should regulate it more like an accelerator-based system. Think medical isotope production for medications, right?
Michl Binderbauer [00:53:32] And that's what was put in front of the Commission. In fact, just last week it came out. The Commission voted unanimously to pick the latter of these pathways. So, it's going to be licensed more like a utilization facility, like an accelerator-based system. So, it'll be a very different licensing regime. And so, what we don't have is now the detailed how do you go about it? Now that the Commission voted what the principal tenets will be and that it's very different than the way fission was licensed... So, we're all super excited. This just happened, literally, like right before the weekend that we got certainly on this. That's a game changer for the industry.
Michl Binderbauer [00:54:11] And so, what obviously has to happen now... The NRC will be the agency and they now have to develop rules for it. We can sort of take a guess what that's going to look like. For instance, if you want to build a medical isotope facility, you have an idea of what the regulations will look like. They'll be a little different, but at least we have an indication. But it's not like a 10 year application for a nuclear fission plant and all the stuff you have to go through. So, that's very exciting.
Michl Binderbauer [00:54:40] And so, it's very similar and it will be probably very similar in the way it practices to the British model. That should give you confidence that, probably, the rest of the world will adopt similar pathways. And so when you think about that, that should make it less expensive and more economic, therefore, to entertain, eventually, deployment of a fusion system versus a fission system. So, we're very excited about that.
Michl Binderbauer [00:55:03] So, you asked a very timely question. Last week, I could have only said "This is what sits there. We hope they pick the least impacting pathway." And they did. Now they did.
Charlie Cole [00:55:13] Wow, nice. That's amazing. And I don't know that happened, so I'm glad my question ended up being that. Amazing. Well, I think I'll give you the last word. For the general, nuclear avid listener of the show, what's sort of one final takeaway that you think they should have about fusion, about TAE in particular? These people kind of love and live the world of nuclear.
Michl Binderbauer [00:55:38] I think one thing I want to say is that nuclear is so poorly understood by the average person. And in fact, we... And I include everybody now... Fusion and fission, to a degree are handicapped by a few accidents that happened. They're horrific accidents, but if you look how wonderful the systems work, typically how reliable they are today with 90% capacity factors or better, it's better than almost all other generation technology in terms of upset. That's not listened to or looked at. It's like, how few aircraft have accidents? But when they do, of course, it's all over the news and people remember that. Nonetheless, we're still flying.
Michl Binderbauer [00:56:17] I think the reality is that nuclear has to have a big spot in the future of energy. There's absolutely no way without it. We now know this. I think policymakers are starting to realize that. And so, I think over short or long, the world is going in the right direction. And you see a renaissance on fission, and I think you certainly see the flourishing of fusion potential. I think with fusion, we're close. I think it's maybe within the next five or so years that you'll see a real net energy demonstration. The NIF got close to some degree, but you're going to get that.
Michl Binderbauer [00:56:50] And the last thing I would say is, when you think of the potential of it as an applied end product, don't get stuck on that only. Look what other things the technology base can provide. And I think this is probably true in nuclear fission as well. I don't spend as much thought on that, but on the fusion side, the technologies we have to lift and develop and incubate for the purpose of realizing fusion have enormous potential elsewhere. And we don't have time here, but TAE today is really sort of a conglomerate of multiple efforts. Fusion is the central, main, 95% thing for most of us, but we have two spinoff companies. One in the medical field. It's taken accelerated technology, the fuel injector technology to the fusion core into a targeted radiation oncology treatment for heretofore untreatable cancers. And we just started treating with the first clinical machine, the first patients with cancers that normally they would tell them, "You've got weeks, put your affairs in order." These people may get a new lease on life. That's wonderful. Coming out of nuclear technology development.
Michl Binderbauer [00:57:59] We just launched a new company, in fact, just now in the recent quarter, on power supplies and what I'm really going to call, power management. And this is a company that we call TAE Power Solutions, and that's taking fusion-based learnings and technology innovation around massively complicated power supplies to drive these magnetic fields, fuel injectors on these short timescales we discussed earlier. They miniaturize it, to a degree, into these modular networks that you can deploy in electric drive trains to make more efficient EVs with longer range with the same batteries and motors, improve the charging infrastructure at great resilience. So, I think it's that where people think of it...
Michl Binderbauer [00:58:40] Think of the benefits that you can not only get in energy, but the other benefits that come from taking journeys like this, it's moonshots, right? And how much, probably, already have offsprings of fission had an impact on us? I think we have to look at that. So, it's between the carbon-free nature that all of these nuclear technologies offer, and its direct energy generation potential plus spinoffs. I think people should think of that. If you take that whole arc in, it's remarkable and really, really exciting. And I wouldn't want to work on anything else, I can tell you that.
Charlie Cole [00:59:12] Yeah, that's an amazing last word. Thanks for that. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Michl. It's been really great talking to you and learning more about TAE and fusion and the history of fusion and Norman and everyone. So yeah, thank you so much.
Michl Binderbauer [00:59:26] I much appreciate it. Thanks for having me.