University of Washington spinoff, Zap Energy, on track to power the planet

Written by Debra Bouchegnies / April 22, 2021

Paving the path to clean energy

Under the roofs of two unremarkable warehouses just north of Seattle lies a solution to clean, safe, renewable, affordable energy. Enter University of Washington fusion technology spinoff Zap Energy, Inc. The potential advantages of nuclear fusion energy are manifold, as it represents a long-term, sustainable, economical, and safe energy source for electricity generation. Fuel is inexpensive and abundant in nature, while the amount of long-lived radioactive waste and greenhouse gases produced through fusion are minimal. Zap Energy’s innovation paves the way to commercially scalable low-carbon fusion energy that investors have been eager to back.

Zap Energy Logo

Breakthrough technology

Zap Energy, which spun off from the UW in 2017, is developing an exciting breakthrough in fusion energy technology. Their plasma confinement method is an extension of work pioneered by the FuZE team at the UW and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Zap Energy stabilizes plasma using sheared flows rather than magnetic fields. Driving electric current through the flow creates the magnetic field, which confines and compresses the plasma. The higher the current, the greater the pressure and density in the plasma. Zap Energy first achieved thermonuclear fusion in 2018 and is on track to soon reach energy breakeven plasma conditions. Zap Energy expects to deliver fusion-derived energy to its first customers in the early 2030s.

The team’s research began in the mid-1990s. Brian A. Nelson, Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder of Zap Energy, received his PhD in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987. He joined UW, where he retired as a Research Professor Emeritus. Uri Shumlak, Zap Energy’s Chief Science Officer and Co-founder, received his PhD in Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley in 1992 and worked at the Air Force Phillips Laboratory at Kirtland AFB before joining UW in 1994. He is a world-renowned theoretical, computational and experimental plasma physicist, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and architect of Zap Energy’s Shear Flow Stabilized Z-pinch technology.

“CoMotion provided vital support to us during the spinoff process in filing the initial patents, supporting the team with the first ARPA-E grant, and getting the license between UW and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory quickly completed,” says Benj Conway, Zap Energy’s President, and business Co-founder.

Fusion – not fission

Some confuse fission with fusion, and the two couldn’t be more different. While both are nuclear reactions, fission splits a heavy unstable nucleus into two lighter nuclei, generating energy and hazardous, radioactive waste. Fusion is the exact opposite—it combines two light nuclei to generate an enormous amount of energy without greenhouse gas emissions. It is the fusion process that powers our very own sun.

Funding for Fusion

In 2015, the team was awarded a grant from ARPA-E’s ALPHA program, which significantly advanced the science leading to the formation of Zap Energy. Zap Energy has since secured additional ARPA-E funding and substantial backing of an energy-focused investor base, including Chevron, who added Zap Energy to their Future Energy Fund last August. Chevron commented that they see fusion technology as a promising low-carbon future energy source.

Zap Energy will soon be announcing some exciting fundraising news–follow the news on Twitter and LinkedIn, and sign up for the CoMotion newsletter, so you don’t miss it!