First Light on target to achieve fusion in 2019

4 June 2019

First Light Fusion, the UK-based University of Oxford spin out researching energy generation via inertial fusion, has successfully completed building and testing of its new pulsed power device, Machine 3 (see MPS, May 2018, pp 17-20).

First Light describes Machine 3 as “the biggest pulsed power machine in the world dedicated to researching fusion energy, capable of discharging up to 200 000 volts and in excess of 14 million amps within two microseconds.” The machine is used to electromagnetically accelerate metal projectiles to create shockwaves. These shockwaves are used to achieve inertial fusion by collapsing a cavity containing plasma inside a ‘target’, with the design of these targets being what First Light calls its “technical USP.”

The new machine will be able to accelerate the projectiles to speeds of around 20 km/s (about 45 000 mph) – high enough to achieve first fusion, which First Light “expects to deliver in 2019.” The next step, perhaps in 2024 or thereabouts, would be to demonstrate ‘energy gain’, in which the energy produced exceeds that required to initiate the fusion reaction. This has not been achieved to date by any mainstream controlled fusion power generation project, but is the goal of both ITER (Europe) and National Ignition Facility (USA), for example. For the First Light process, gain would require a projectile velocity of around 100 km/s.

Dr Nicholas Hawker, CEO of FLF, said the commissioning of Machine 3 was “another major milestone for First Light Fusion.” He said “performance had been confirmed to meet the design specification” and experimental campaigns had started: “These will culminate in the first demonstration of fusion from one of our target designs. These targets have many elements and we are holding ourselves to a very high scientific standard, verifying operation of each element in isolation and cross-comparing with simulation predictions at all stages. We are confident we will show fusion this year.

“In parallel we are working on the reactor concept and on the commercial aspects of the technology. Our technology is uniquely scalable and we believe we can see a clear pathway to the first reactors producing power. We must be led by the science and there is still a lot to do, but if we can find the target that works with our reactor design, fusion would not be ‘always 30 years away’ – we could make it happen much faster than that.”

First Light Fusion was founded by Professor Yiannis Ventikos, who is currently the Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at University College, London, and Nicholas Hawker, formerly an Engineering lecturer at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

The company was spun out in July 2011, with seed capital from IP Group plc, Parkwalk Advisors Ltd and private investors. Invesco and OSI provided follow-on capital.

First Light says it has evolved “from a research-focused university project to a fully-fledged company that has developed not only a strategy for how to make fusion energy work, but also a sustainable business model based on the technology.”

The company’s approach – which is to achieve inertial fusion by using shockwaves 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 company notes.

Fusion has already been demonstrated by other approaches. The two most advanced, both aiming to demonstrate energy gain, are the tokamak (magnetic fusion) and laser-driven inertial fusion. ITER, being built in the south of France, will be the world’s largest tokamak, while the National Ignition Facility in California uses the world’s most energetic laser.

Both these projects have “encountered substantial difficulties”, First Light notes, both relating to the fusion process itself and to 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 for these mainstream approaches.” 

Contract extension for JET

First Light’s near neighbour, the JET (Joint European Torus) magnetic fusion research facility, based in Culham, Oxfordshire, UK, has recently secured a contract extension, signed by the

UK government and the European Commission, which will result in “at least €100m in additional inward investment from the EU over the next two years” and “guarantees its operations until the end of 2020” regardless of how Brexit pans out. The future of the facility has been under discussion since 2017, as its work is covered by the Euratom Treaty, which the UK government declared its intention to leave as part of Brexit.

The extension means JET can conduct a series of fusion tests planned for 2020 that will serve as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for ITER. The new contract also leaves open the option of a further extension to JET’s operations until 2024, which would enable it to support ITER in the run-up to its launch, expected 2025.

JET was the first device to perform controlled nuclear fusion (in 1991), holds the world record for fusion power and is the only tokamak that can test the fusion fuel mix (deuterium and tritium) expected to be used in commercial reactors. 

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