University of Washington spinout Zap Energy is working on building a cheap, scalable fusion reactor generating low cost and carbon free energy.

Zap Energy, a US-based fusion energy spinout of University of Washington, has raised $160m in its series C round led by Lowercarbon Capital, a venture capital firm focused on technologies that reduce carbon emissions.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, DCVC, Valor Equity Partners, Addition and Energy Impact Partners as well as Shell Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures, respective vehicles for oil and gas companies Shell and Chevron, also contributed to the round.

Zap Energy’s technology relies on confining and compressing plasma that carries a current which generates its own magnetic field, foregoing the need for superconducting magnets. That field, in turn, “pinches” the plasma to a heat and density where fusion can occur. Zap’s breakthrough hinges on suppressing instabilities in the plasma to sustain it, a hurdle that has meant historical attempts at this approach failed.

The funding will allow for the continued testing of Zap’s prototype fusion reactor as it pursues its goal of its reactor releasing the same amount of energy than it consumes – referred to as Q=1 – and eventually moving beyond that breakeven point.

Zap commercialises research by Uri Shumlak, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Brian Nelson, a research professor emeritus in University of Washington’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The two joined forces with entrepreneur and investor Benjamin Conway to establish Zap Energy.

Conway said: “To be a practical energy source, we need to go well beyond Q=1, but if you want to get fusion on the grid in time to make a difference to the planet, then the ability to iterate quickly on a small, cheap platform, is absolutely vital.”

Zap Energy is not Lowercarbon Capital’s first foray into fusion energy. The firm is also an investor Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), spun out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which raised $1.8bn in its series B round in December 2021 from the firm and others, including MIT-founded The Engine.

Another fusion energy spinout, University of Oxford’s First Light Fusion, is working on projectile fusion and raised $45m in a series C round closed in February 2022.

A statistic by ClientEarth noted that, “89% of global CO2 emissions came from the fossil fuels industry,” contributing to global rising temperatures that affect all known life. Furthermore, utility Octopus Energy reported that, “if humanity continued to burn fossil fuels at its current rate, all fossil fuels will be depleted by 2060”. The increase in renewable energy sector startups is therefore not surprising given the international demand for reliable and safer energy. 

Roshini Bains

Roshini Bains is the junior news reporter for Global Corporate Venturing and Global University Venturing.