News Extra: UK tech startup seeks innovative approach to nuclear fusion
01 June 2018
First Light Fusion, an Oxford-based global leader in researching energy generation via inertial confinement fusion, is investing £3.6 million building a pulsed power machine to advance the company’s work exploring fusion, the ultimate source of energy.
The device, labelled Machine 3, is under construction and on track to be commissioned by the end of 2018. It will be the only pulsed power machine of its scale in the world dedicated to researching fusion energy. Once complete, it will be capable of discharging up to 200,000 volts and in excess of 14 million ampere – the equivalent of nearly 500 simultaneous lightning strikes – within two microseconds. The Machine will use some 3km of high voltage cables and another 10km of diagnostic cables.
Machine 3 will be used to further research First Light Fusion’s technology as the company seeks to achieve first fusion. The next step in the technological development will be to achieve ‘gain’, whereby the amount of energy created outstrips that used to spark the reaction. Fusion is the ultimate source of the Universe’s energy and is the same process that powers stars, including the Sun.
First Light uses a high-velocity projectile to create a shockwave to collapse a cavity containing plasma inside a ‘target’. The design of these targets is First Light’s technical USP.
The company’s approach was inspired by the only example of inertial confinement found on Earth – the pistol shrimp, which clicks its claw to produce a shockwave that stuns its prey.
The only other naturally occurring inertial confinement phenomenon is a supernova. The reaction created by the collapsing cavity is what creates energy, which can then be captured and used.
Fusion has already been demonstrated by other approaches. The two most advanced are the tokamak and laser-driven inertial fusion. ITER, being built in the south of France, will be the world’s largest tokamak, aiming to demonstrate gain. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California is the world’s most energetic laser and is also aiming to demonstrate gain.
Both these projects have encountered substantial difficulties, both relating to the fusion process itself but also the complexity of the engineering required. First Light must demonstrate fusion before then undertaking an equivalent gain-scale experiment. However, if First Light succeeds in the fundamental demonstration of fusion, the pathway to gain and a power plant is potentially much simpler, quicker and cheaper than these mainstream approaches.
First Light’s approach to fusion, which is safe, clean and virtually limitless (with the source of energy drawn from the deuterium contained in sea water), has the potential to transform the world’s energy supply if it can be applied successfully to power generation. Unlike existing nuclear power, there is no long-lived waste and raw materials can be found in abundance. As demand for alternatives to carbon-based energy grows, mainstream scientists and research institutions are looking to fusion power to answer the world’s energy requirements.
Nicholas Hawker, Founder and CEO of FLF said: "Machine 3 will be a unique facility. There is nothing else like it in the world. The pressures and velocities that we will be able to access with this machine will massively extend the development of our fusion target designs. We are confident that we will reach our present goal of demonstrating fusion. Beyond that, the experimental platform that we can build with this machine will give us critical insights into the next step, which is to demonstrate gain.
"We also look forward to welcoming our collaborators from the high energy density physics community to work with us on these experiments. All of this has been achieved at a drastically reduced cost when compared with other alternative technology choices."
First Light Fusion was founded by research scientist Dr Nicholas Hawker and Kennedy Professor of Mechanical Engineering Yiannis Ventikos. The company boasts a world-class advisory board including Nobel Prize-winning scientist Prof Steven Chu and Prof Arun Majumdar – who both served in the US Department of Energy under President Barack Obama.
Ultimately, FLF’s aim to achieve gain before seeking to demonstrate the commercial viability of the technology to produce safe, efficient and environmentally friendly baseload energy around the world.