UK firm sees year-end launch of pulsed power device

WNN 15 March 2018

First Light Fusion (FLF) is investing GBP3.6 million (USD5.0 million) building what it says will be the only pulsed power machine of its scale in the world dedicated to researching fusion energy. The Oxford, England-based company said on 12 March it expects to commission the device – Machine 3 – by the end of this year.

A rendering of Machine 3 (Image: First Light Fusion)

FLF aims 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. The fusion energy gain factor, usually expressed with the symbol Q, is the ratio of fusion power produced in a nuclear fusion reactor to the power required to maintain the plasma in steady state.

“The pressures and velocities that we will be able to access with this machine will massively extend the development of our fusion target designs,” Nicholas Hawker, Founder and CEO of FLF said.

“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.”

Machine 3 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 company said. It will use some 3km of high voltage cables and another 10km of diagnostic cables.

Machine 3 will be used to further research FLF’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, it said.

It uses a high-velocity projectile to create a shockwave to collapse a cavity containing plasma inside a ‘target’. The design of these targets is the company’s “technical USP”, FLF said.

The only example of inertial confinement found on Earth is the pistol shrimp, which clicks its claw to produce a shockwave that stuns its prey, the company said. 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, it added.

Fusion has already been demonstrated by other approaches, FLF noted. 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 in California is the world’s most energetic laser and is also aiming to demonstrate gain.

Both these projects have encountered “substantial difficulties”, FLF said, both relating to the fusion process itself but also the complexity of the engineering required. FLF must demonstrate fusion before then undertaking an equivalent gain-scale experiment, it added.

If First Light succeeds in the fundamental demonstration of fusion, however, the pathway to gain and a power plant is “potentially much simpler, quicker and cheaper than these mainstream approaches”, it said.

Hawker said FLF looked forward to welcoming its collaborators from the high energy density physics community to work with it on its experiments.

“All of this has been achieved at a drastically reduced cost when compared with other alternative technology choices,” he said.

FLF Ltd, which researches energy generation via inertial confinement fusion, was spun out from the University of Oxford in July 2011, with seed capital from the IP Group plc, Parkwalk Advisors Ltd and a number of Angel investors. Until May 2014, the company was named Oxyntix Ltd.