Nuclear fusion startup Alpha Ring builds ecosystem in Taiwan to get ahead

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0


Nuclear fusion technology is gaining momentum. Alpha Ring, a startup company that has pioneered electron-catalyzed fusion, originated in the US and is now flourishing in Taiwan, working to establish an ecosystem aimed at harnessing the ultimate energy solution. Their innovative micro-fusion reactor sets them apart from conventional fusion reactors.

"From theory to apparatus and applications, we have patents to cover all the journey," said Steve Hwang, COO of Alpha Ring International when speaking to DIGITIMES Asia in its Taipei lab, located in an office building in Taipei's Neihu Science Park.

"We applied electrons to create electron potential difference to trigger the nuclear fusion of hydrogen and boron, so the temperature is relatively low—just around 1,000-2,000 degrees Celsius, but free from radiation pollution, because it is aneutronic fusion," said Hwang. The company adopts a different approach from conventional nuclear fusion, such as Tokamak or laser ignition, which requires extremely high temperature, high pressure, and high magnetic field.

A McKinsey report in early 2023 points out that building up an ecosystem will accelerate the commercialization of fusion energy. Taiwan is the perfect place for Alpha Ring to partner with companies from various industries and form a nuclear fusion ecosystem, said Judy Chuang, COO of Alpha Ring Asia.

Recently, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California successfully achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the second time, repeating the breakthrough in an experiment on July 30, and producing higher energy output than in December, according to the Financial Times, quoting three people with the knowledge of the preliminary results.

The news rekindled a wave of media frenzy towards fusion energy, as the higher energy produced in the repeated success implies the possibility for scale-up and commercialization. Tsung-kuang Yeh, a professor at the Department of Engineering and System Science, College of Nuclear Science, National Tsinghua University, however, doubts the feasibility of LLNL project for stable electricity supply applications, because the duration of the reaction which lasted less than 1 second was too short for that purpose.

The nuclear fusion race has attracted more and more companies to enter the competition. Nikkei Asia reported that Nobel Prize-winning electronics engineer, Shuji Nakamura, now a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also has set up a startup that aims to use powerful beams of light to fuse atoms for energy.

From theory to reality

The technology of Alpha Ring was first developed by Alfred Wong, former professor of the Department of Physics and director of Plasma Physics Labs at UCLA, more than 10 years ago. Venture capital firm WI Harper Group invested in Alpha Ring in 2017 and has invited prestigious plasma physics experts such as Roger Falcone and Daniel Kammen from UC Berkeley, Richard Petrasso from MIT, John Martinis from UC Santa Barbara, and Lou-Chuang Lee of Academia Sinica as advisors and chief scientists to help deliver the technology. John Martinis, who is a former head of Quantum Hardware at Google, is now helping out with measuring the accuracy of gains and improvements.

"Alpha Ring is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," it is the reason why Peter Liu, founder and chairman of WI Harper Group and now serving as Alpha Ring CEO, was able to attract top-notch experts to the company.

The company has successfully created its Micro Fusion Reactor (MFR) and completed several rounds of experiments. "Our output energy has already exceeded input energy, and since our product is relatively low in temperature and small in size, we are the most likely to commercialize than other competitors," said Hwang. According to Hwang, Alpha Ring's MFR result shows 20% more output energy gain than input energy. In some advanced experiments, the net energy gain can be as high as 50% to 80%. (Editor's note: gain is the ratio of output energy to the input energy, i.e., Gain (Q) = Output energy/Input energy. Gain >1 means the output energy is higher than the input energy. In this case, the reactor can produce positive net output energy, i.e., net output energy = output energy – input energy.)

Judy Chuang said the technology is now at the stage of proof of concept, and commercialization is expected to materialize in 3–5 years. Alpha Ring has started to partner with industrial conglomerates including an energy firm and a power supply firm in Taiwan, hoping to co-develop the product and eventually form an industrial cluster here and build a trillion-dollar industry to provide affordable clean energy to the world and create new jobs.

It also plans to manufacture ion-beam fusion systems and sell them to universities all over the world to educate science and engineering school students and let them have hands-on experience monitoring the actual hydrogen-boron nuclear fusion in person.

Accelerating commercialization

Alpha Ring has labs located in Monterey and Gardena, California, and Taipei. Attracted by the comprehensive supply chains in Taiwan, it has also applied to set up its fourth lab in Tainan, to start collaborations with local partners and form an industrial cluster.

"We envision our product to be applied in generating green steam first, as the market is huge and demand is robust among manufacturing companies which are keen to get green energy to lower possible extra cost in the face of carbon tariffs of EU's Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM)," said Chuang.

Alpha Ring plans to build products for household heating and electricity as a distributed source of energy. "It will be similar to the battery swap model of Gogoro, that households can easily replace used energy keg with one that gets refueled."

The MFR technology patented by Alpha Ring has been developed for more than 10 years. The original idea was to increase safety through lower power design and modularize it to meet different power requirements.

For Alpha Ring's MFR technology, the fuels are H2 and Boron and need to be replaced every 6 months. Therefore, it is very suitable for power supply in small areas, such as science parks and households.

Alpha Ring sees the possibility of scaling up the MFR by connecting thousands of units in arrays. Yet the challenge lies with energy management, because each unit may have different reactions, and the internet of things technology combined with AI technology will have to be applied for monitoring the reactor reliability and fuels replenishment fuels rod level of each MFR.

If fusion energy became available at a sufficiently competitive cost, between $50–100 MWh, it could cover more than 20% of the generation capacity in Europe by 2050, according to McKinsey. Having a cost advantage over its competitors, Alpha Ring is taking steps to accelerate its go-to-market strategy, hoping to get ahead of other competitors.