How This Unconventional Oxford Startup Plans To Win The Fusion Energy Race

Forbes by Gemma Milne | Aug. 29, 2019

Fusion energy startup First Light Fusion is working towards demonstrating “first fusion” before the end of the year, in their Oxford-based laboratory. If they succeed, they join only a few companies and research groups on the path to demonstrating “gain,” where the energy created outstrips the energy required to start the reaction, which they hope to do by 2024.

Demonstrating gain is the key marker of success and the proof required for the industry to start building the commercial infrastructure to scale the technology, but no company or research group has managed it yet. The history of fusion is littered with a few high-profile failures, prompting many to believe the “it’s always 30 years away” narrative, but with investment in the space heating up with more private investors starting to see the potential in recently-formed startups, belief in fusion is growing again.

In the fusion energy race, it’s arguably anybody’s game among the few key global leaders of both startups and publicly-funded research efforts. There’s the huge international research effort in the south of France, ITER, looking to demonstrate first plasma–not gain–at the end of 2025. And there’s the various startups with their different technological approaches attracting private funding worldwide, such as TAE with $600 million funding in Los Angeles, Boston-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems with $115 million raised in June and General Fusion with over $100 million based in British Columbia. In the U.K., Tokamak Energy has raised over $50 million.

A Different Approach

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First Light Fusion has so far racked up $25 million of private investment, and are taking a quite different approach to their technology and their business plan versus the competition.

To make fusion happen, hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium are heated up to prompt fusion reactions between the nuclei now traveling at super-fast speeds. The temperature needed for fusion to happen is over 100 million degrees Celsius, at which point the isotopes go beyond their gaseous state into plasma. Due to the heat being so high, it cannot come into contact with any solid material. Fusion reactors need to be engineered such that the plasma can be confined safely for long enough at a high enough temperature and density for fusion to happen.

There are two main focus areas in the fusion research community which differ in how they confine the plasma. The more popular method is magnetic confinement, where super-powerful magnets are used to keep the plasma in a vacuum away from the reactor walls and held compact enough so that the collisions can happen. The other method is called inertial confinement, where a high energy laser or beam of ions is shot at a tiny pellet of frozen hydrogen about the size of a pinhead, heating and then compressing the pellet to essentially create a tiny explosion.

First Light Fusion is focused on inertial confinement, with their approach called “projectile fusion.” Their machine launches a copper disk at high velocity to collide with a pellet of fuel they call the “target,” which has a hydrogen bubble inside.

At the point of collision, immense pressure is put on the bubble, forming a pressure wave which travels through the target, forcing the hydrogen cavity to collapse. For that brief fraction of a second, the plasma that is created is hotter than the sun and denser than lead. The company already demonstrated plasma in 2012, and this year they hope to demonstrate fusion for the first time.

Consumables As A Technical Advantage

For First Light Fusion, the target is what’s key. The rest of their set up predominantly uses existing technology. And here lies the business model opportunity: consumables. The plan would be to manufacture and sell the targets to power plant operators—the ultimate Nespresso capsule, as it were.

CEO Nick Hawker says: “We’re so far in our development that some of the target dynamics and behaviors we’re seeing have never been seen before in science at all. We’ve been able to capture them in simulations, isolate experimentally, prove they exist, adjust the simulations, and now we have predictive capability in-silico to explore the target science.”

This scientific advantage with the target, though, is exactly what allows them to stand out in an arguably crowded market. As Hawker puts it: “We can be the world champion on understanding this very, very complex part of the whole.”

This approach to business and technology explains how companies like First Light Fusion can play in this industry alongside the $20 billion science experiment that is ITER.

“Because of the nature of the technology at ITER, it’s a very integrated machine. So you have to design a lot more of the stuff you would need for power plant than we will have to design to do our gain experiment. Our gain experiment will be a single shot, and we run it, which makes it a lot cheaper to do,” Hawker explains.

The Race Is On

This year is a crucial one for First Light Fusion. If they can demonstrate fusion, it is a huge de-risking moment for the company. One of the criticisms of the industry though is that dates always end up shifting, but Hawker is determined: “We’re committed to showing fusion in 2019. We put that date on paper in 2014, and we’re on track. We first put the 2024 date for gain on paper in 2014, and we’re still on track. If we get the fusion result, which I’m confident we’re going to do, then the plan is to raise the money to build the gain experiment.”

With many players vying to be the proven leader in the field, and many different options now for what might be the technology to “win” with a gain demonstration, it seems as though there would be investors and corporates just waiting in the wings to snap up what works, and scale it into the next generation energy business. Of course, that remains to be seen, and with the fusion energy still garnering skepticism from burned investors in the past and disbelief as a more general public sentiment, someone somewhere proving gain can’t come soon enough. The current enthusiasm won’t last forever, after all.

When asked what Hawker’s motivation is, like many of those working in the fusion space, he responds with something other than saving the world or making his millions: “Climate change is certainly part of our motivation. Being honest though, another part of our motivation is simply the challenge. It can be done, it can be solved. It’s just working out how. This is the most difficult physics measuring problem in the world. I suppose I’m a sucker for hard problems.”