New CoMotion Blog Series: UW Innovators Battling Climate Change

Written by CoMotion Staff / April 22, 2020

Earth at night was holding in human hands. Earth day. Energy saving concept, Elements of this image furnished by NASA

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are launching a new blog series that highlights UW spinoffs and technologies whose innovations contribute to making a positive impact on climate change. This blog series is also timely in light of recent research by the World Health Organization concluding that changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.

We begin the blog series with CTFusion, one of two UW spinoffs in the fusion energy space—an attractive energy source to pursue for commercial electricity production as it does not produce greenhouse gas or long-lived radioactive waste.

CTFusion: Commercializing cost-competitive fusion energy

Fusion is how the sun and the other stars in our universe make energy, and is the ultimate clean power source. The world’s population and global economy can grow sustainably with fusion.

CTFusion, a UW spinoff, is dedicated to the development of fusion energy, a potentially revolutionary energy source to displace conventional ones such as coal, natural gas, and fission. Founded in 2015 by Dr. Derek Sutherland (CEO) and UW Professor Tom Jarboe, and built upon a foundation of over 28 years of research and experience at the University of Washington, the company’s vision is to produce low-cost, on-demand, carbon-free power generation to fulfill varied customer needs. The startup’s breakthrough technology will help it develop the first commercial nuclear fusion reactor on the planet.

Benefits of fusion energy

Fusion is a clean energy source with no greenhouse gas emissions that will sustainably improve quality of life worldwide. It is safe and generates no long-lived radioactive waste and has zero risk of meltdowns. Cheap fusion fuel (hydrogen and lithium) is available nearly everywhere on earth in plentiful quantities. In addition, fusion power is on-demand and will work with renewable energy sources like wind and solar in robust clean energy grids.

Breakthrough technology

CTFusion uses a breakthrough technology that allows a more compact, low-cost reactor design point than previously possible. A novel method for unifying magnetic confinement, heating and current drive in deuterium-tritium plasma greatly simplifies and lowers the cost of fusion energy.

A breakthrough in plasma confinement, heating, and current drive enables more compact, affordable fusion reactor visions than previously possible. Their patented technology of Imposed-Dynamo Current Drive (IDCD) efficiently forms and sustains compact, magnetically confined fusion plasmas. This approach toward magnetic fusion energy was pioneered at the University of Washington by the HIT-SI Research Group.

Commercializing fusion energy

Sutherland and Jarboe founded CTFusion together to begin the process of commercializing this approach to economical fusion energy, motivated by results from the HIT-SI Research Project. The project was funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in Energy (ARPA-E), and the National Science Foundation. The UW team working on the ongoing ARPA-E OPEN subcontract recently was selected for an additional ARPA-E award ($1.5M) from the new BETHE program. Though this award is to the University of Washington, it directly supports the continued development of this approach to fusion energy and will maximize the performance of an upgraded experiment called HIT-SIU that they are currently building as part of their ongoing ARPA-E OPEN project. CTFusion also received a CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund grant which permitted research not covered by other grant sources.

Sutherland, who received his Ph.D from the UW in 2019 focusing on plasma physics and fusion energy, is also an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project. He was recognized as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Energy in 2015 for his work on an economical fusion reactor concept “Dynomak.” “Working with CoMotion and our technology manager Ryan Buckmaster has been instrumental in navigating the complexities of intellectual property and other business development activities,” said Sutherland. “The support we received as scientist-entrepreneurs at UW, with both a CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund grant and from Entrepreneur-in-Residence Mohan Vaghul, was critical in getting our business off the ground. Without this support, it is unlikely CTFusion would be in the position it is today.”

Since 2015, new members have joined the company — Aaron Hossack, (CTO), Chris Ajemian (VP of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs), and Kyle Morgan (Research Scientist) – and all are playing critical roles in helping develop this approach to fusion. Executive Director Andrew Holland notes that, “It is heartening to see that ARPA-E continues to support and encourage the good work of the fusion community. It’s an exciting time in the private fusion community, with over $1 billion in direct investment. We’re looking forward to great things from CTFusion.”

CTFusion is a member of the American Fusion Project run by the American Security Project, a non-profit organization focused on educating the public about the changing nature of national security in the 21st century. CTFusion is also one of 16 members of the Fusion Industry Association. See more about CTFusion in this article in Forbes magazine.


Check back next month when we feature another UW spinoff in the fusion energy space, Zap Energy, who will have some exciting news to share in May—or sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss it! We also encourage you to read about the UW’s new Sustainability Strategy announced by UW President Ana Mari Cauce on Earth Day 2020.