FIRST Light Fusion, an Oxford-based global leader in researching energy generation via inertial confinement fusion, has successfully fired the first test ‘shot’ on one of the six limbs of its newly-constructed pulsed power machine.
Built to advance the Company’s work exploring fusion – the ultimate source of energy – Machine 3 remains on track to be commissioned into service by the end of 2018.
Following the successful shot in late July, First Light Fusion was able to repeat the test a few days later after all parts of Machine 3 had been checked and the data produced analysed, proving the limb functions as designed.
Once fully commissioned, it will be the only pulsed power machine of its scale in the world dedicated to researching fusion energy. 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 £3.6m 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: “These were test shots but are very important nevertheless because they were the first ‘end-to-end’ tests of Machine 3. The successful outcome de-risks the rest of the project because it was based on one of the six limbs of the device. The other five limbs are exact replicas of the one we tested.
“It was a fantastic achievement for the team to be able to fire the first test shot just five months from the beginning of construction of what will be a unique facility once fully commissioned. There is nothing else like it in the world.”
“We are confident that we will reach our present goal of demonstrating fusion. Beyond that, the experimental platform that we have built with this machine will give us critical insights into the next step, which is to demonstrate gain.”
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 – as well as former UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King, a world-leading authority on climate change.
Ultimately, FLF’s aim is 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.