First Light Achieves Fusion Energy

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

First Light Fusion has confirmed for the first time that it has achieved fusion with projectile approach. The results have been validated by UKAEA.

First Light Fusion (First Light) has confirmed that it has achieved fusion. The U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) independently validated the achievement.

The fusion achieved by the Oxford University fusion spin–out is the first to use projectile technology. The goal of First Light is to tackle the fusion challenge with a machine that is as simple as possible. According to scientists, projectile technology is a revolutionary inertial method that should be more energy–efficient and less expensive.

First Light’s technique for inertial fusion involves compressing a target with a projectile flying at breakneck speed to achieve the required extreme temperatures and pressures. First Light reduces the time it takes to maintain a steady temperature to a fraction of a second. It accomplishes this by channeling fuel toward a fast–moving projectile. As a result, the fusion process only takes a fraction of a second to complete. First Light believes that, by using this approach, they will be able to sidestep some of the most challenging aspects of fusion reactor design.

“We believe that our approach offers a simpler pathway to fusion energy generation, because it leverages existing technology in many key areas. Our plant concept also avoids three big challenges of fusion engineering: preventing neutron damage, producing tritium, and managing extreme heat flux,” said Gianluca Pisanello, First Light’s chief operating officer.

First Light’s approach

Instead of using complex and expensive lasers or magnets to generate or maintain the conditions for fusion, the First Light approach compresses the fuel inside a target using a projectile traveling at an enormous speed. The key technology in the First Light approach is the design of the target, which concentrates the energy of the projectile, causing the fuel to implode at the temperatures and densities needed to achieve fusion.

Big Gun complements the startup’s Machine 3, an electromagnetic launch device that allows projectiles to be launched at different velocities. Citadel, a 10–mm steel–clad building, houses the hypervelocity gas cannon. Using about 3 kg of gun powder, projectiles can achieve a maximum velocity of more than 6.5 km/s, or 14,500 mph.

Projectiles are launched into a vacuum chamber containing a fusion target. Leveraging the startup’s amplification technology, the fusion fuel’s collapse velocity reaches more than 70 km/s, producing pressure 30 times that of the Earth’s center, establishing the conditions for fusion.

First Light’s target technology focuses on and amplifies the impact, and a pulse of fusion energy is released. This energy is absorbed by the flowing lithium inside the chamber, heating it up. The flowing liquid protects the chamber from the enormous energy release, avoiding some of the most difficult engineering problems in other fusion approaches. Finally, a heat exchanger transfers the heat from the lithium to the water, generating steam that turns a turbine and produces electricity.

fusion energy
First Light Fusion machine and operator at work (Source: First Light Fusion)

Next step

According to First Light’s analysis, such technology can achieve a very low levelized cost of energy of under $50 per MWh, directly competing with renewables. First Light believes that focusing not only on the science but also on its future business model is a significant point of differentiation, demonstrating the environmental and commercial benefits of the company’s approach to fusion.

The UKAEA, a non–departmental executive public body sponsored by the U.K. government’s Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, was asked to analyze and validate First Light’s fusion results before they were officially released to the public. The UKAEA can now confirm that there is evidence that First Light produced neutrons that are consistent with those produced by the fusion of deuterium fuel.

This fusion technology would be far less expensive than the Tokamaks or lasers now in use. according to First Light. Furthermore, unlike current technologies based on superconductors and strong magnetic fields, its industrialization, or rather, its transformation into a first working prototype and subsequently into an industrial product that can be replicated in series would be far easier. The new challenge to face will be to turn the process into a working demonstrator with a positive “overall energy balance” that generates more electricity than it consumes.

First Light is working towards a “gain” experiment (more energy output than input). The company’s current challenge is focused on a pilot plant that will produce approximately 150 MW of electricity and cost less than $1 billion in 2030. First Light is collaborating with UBS Investment Bank to explore strategic options for its next phase of scientific and commercial development.

“Achieving fusion is a very important step, because it proves that our concept works. One of our areas of focus will be on how to repeatedly and accurately fire our projectiles,” commented Pisanello.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.


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