Oxfordshire company invests millions in search for clean, abundant energy

piston shrimp

An Oxfordshire-based business is building the biggest pulsed power machine in the world. When complete it will be capable of discharging up to 200,000 volts – the equivalent of nearly 500 simultaneous lightning strikes – within two microseconds and could be a major solution to the UK’s hunt for clean, abundant energy.

(image shows a pistol shrimp – the inspiration behind First Light Fusion)

First Light Fusion, based at Oxford Industrial Park, is a global leader in researching energy generation via inertial confinement fusion. It is investing £3.6 million in building a world-first pulsed power machine to advance the company’s work exploring fusion, the ultimate source of energy.

Inertial confinement fusion attempts to initiate nuclear fusion reactions by heating and compressing a fuel target.

First Light Fusion’s device, called Machine 3, is on track to be commissioned by the end of this year. It will be used to further research First Light Fusion’s technology as the company seeks to achieve first fusion.

Nuclear fusion should not be confused with fission. Fusion does not have many of the challenges of existing nuclear which is powered by fission. Fission is made possible with a chain reaction: meltdown occurs when the chain reaction runs away. Fusion is not a chain reaction, meaning meltdown is fundamentally impossible and it does not produce weapon materials.

Fusion also does not generate any long-lived radioactive products. In contrast, fission produces high level waste with a half-life of centuries. Long-term storage and disposal of such waste continues to be a headache for Governments and the scientific community.

First Light Fusion’s approach was inspired by co-founder and CEO, Nicholas Hawker. While completing his PhD at Oxford University he identified the only example of inertial confinement found on Earth – the pistol shrimp, which clicks its claws to produce a shockwave that stuns its prey – bullet-strength bubbles. 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.

While First Light hasn’t yet achieved first fusion, the reaction already been demonstrated by other approaches. The two most advanced are the tokamak and laser-driven inertial fusion. ITER, currently under construction in the south of France, and being funded by 35 nations including the UK, will be the world’s first tokamak (the device in which controlled fusion can take place). 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, relating to the fusion process and the complexity of the engineering required.

Closer to home, Milton Park-based Tokamak Energy Ltd is another private company striving to harness the potential of fusion power through tokamak. It is pioneering the compact spherical tokamak route to fusion power, exploring and developing its own compact version that will use high temperature superconductors to create strong magnetic fields to contain the hot plasma.

First Light Fusion’s approach to fusion, which is safe, clean and virtually limitless, has the potential to transform the world’s energy supply if it can be applied successfully to power generation.

CEO Nicholas Hawker said: “We are confident that we will reach our present goal of demonstrating fusion. Beyond that, the experimental platform that we can build with Machine 3 will give us critical insights into the next step, which is to demonstrate gain. All of this has been achieved at a drastically reduced cost when compared with other alternative technology choices.”

The potential of First Light Fusion’s science has been recognised by the former government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King who has joined the company’s advisory board. Sir David said: “Power generation from inertial confinement fusion is an exciting prospect and one which the high calibre team of physicists and engineers at First Light Fusion is exploring with scientific rigour. I am looking forward immensely to helping this talented group of scientists reach their goal.”