Oxford-based First Light Fusion (FLF), which is researching a number of alternative research directions to develop inertial confinement fusion ICF) for energy generation, announced on 29 August that it had successfully fired the first test ‘shot’ on one of the six limbs of its newly-constructed pulsed power machine. Machine 3 remains on track to be commissioned into service by the end of 2018, FLF said.
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 that the limb functions as designed. When 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. FLF explained. The GBP3.6m ($4.7m) machine will use some 3km of high voltage cables and another 10km of diagnostic cables.
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. First Light uses a high-velocity projectile to create a shockwave to collapse a cavity containing plasma inside a ‘target’. FLF said the design of these targets is its technical USP (unique selling point), and its 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 ICF 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. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, being built in 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. FLF must demonstrate fusion before undertaking an equivalent gain-scale experiment. However, if it succeeds in the fundamental demonstration of fusion, FLF says the pathway to gain and a power plant is potentially much simpler, quicker and cheaper than these mainstream approaches.
FLF Founder and CEO Nicholas Hawker 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.” He added: “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.”
FLF was founded by Professor Yiannis Ventikos, who is currently the Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at University College, London, and Dr Nicholas Hawker, formerly an Engineering lecturer at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Its advisory board includes 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. The company was spun out from the University of Oxford in July 2011, with seed capital from IP Group, Parkwalk Advisors Ltd and a number of angel investors. Until May 2014, the company was named Oxyntix Ltd. Following promising experimental results, FLF raised GBP23m in 2015. FLF employs a team of engineers and physicists, as well as collaborating closely with a number of academic organisations, including the University of Oxford, Loughborough University, UCL and Imperial College London.