UK-based First Light Fusion (FLF) has become the first privately funded fusion company to fire a shot on the US Sandia National Laboratories’ Z Machine in New Mexico.

The Z Machine is the world’s most powerful pulsed power facility with a peak power of 80,000 TW – more than the world’s entire electricity grid, it electromagnetically launches projectiles to higher velocities than any other facility. These are used to impact samples of material, testing their properties at extreme pressures.

FLF is pursuing a form of inertial confinement fusion called projectile fusion, which creates the extreme temperatures and pressures required to achieve ‘fusion’ by compressing a target containing fusion fuel using a projectile travelling at a tremendous speed. FLF says this does not involve using complex, energy-intensive, expensive lasers, or magnets and represents a simpler, cheaper, more energy-efficient approach to achieving fusion with lower physics risk.

Key to this approach is FLF’s amplifier technology which is “broadly applicable across different driver technologies”. The amplifier massively increases the pressure delivered from the impact of the projectile, necessary to achieve fusion. FLF leveraged the vast power of Sandia’s Z Machine for the first time in February to fire a projectile at its unique amplifier technology.

The successful experiment set a new pressure record for quartz at Sandia’s facility, lifting it from 1.5 terapascal (TPa) to 1.85 TPa, whilst also maintaining the sample conditions required for high precision measurements for which the Sandia Lab is recognised. The experiment provided valuable insight into amplifier development giving the team considerable confidence in its modelling and simulations. FLF says the shot also proves that its hydrodynamic amplification technology works when driven by different types of projectiles. It allows measurements of material behaviour at extreme pressures previously unattainable on this facility, such as can be found in planetary cores or inertial confinement fusion targets. Work is now underway to increase this pressure further.

FLF will fire its next shot on the Z Machine at the end of this year when further progress is expected. The company has been awarded three shots in total on the Z Machine, as part of its ongoing partnership with the Sandia. The experiments form part of Sandia’s ‘Z Fundamental Science’ programme.

“We are delighted to report that our first shot on the Z Machine was a resounding success – breaking the pressure record for the facility and further validating the value that First Light’s unique amplifier technology, said FLF founder & CEO Dr Nick Hawker. “Our ongoing partnership with Sandia and access to its state-of-the-art Z Machine enables us to test our unique amplifier technology at pressures we can’t access anywhere else in the world. To achieve success on the first shot is a testimony to the quality of our simulation, design, manufacturing, and experimental teams. Testing at higher pressures is incredibly important as we seek to push the limits of what our amplifiers can do. We look forward to breaking the pressure record again later this year.”

Dr Daniel Sinars, Director of the Pulsed Power Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories, said the joint experiments were conducted as part of Sandia’s Z Fundamental Science Program, which permits potential academic and industry collaborators to propose basic science experiments on the Z machine. “Proposals undergo a competitive review process involving non-Sandia referees and we typically award about 14 shots annually,” he said.

He added: “This proposal was intended to advance our knowledge of the response of quartz at high pressures, which is important because quartz is a standard window material used on many of materials experiments…. Getting a successful result on this first-ever experiment is a testament to the joint team’s excellent experimental design and careful attention to its execution. Continued success along these lines could lead to new platforms for stockpile stewardship materials experiments on Z. Sandia is also working with the National Nuclear Security Administration on a potential path forward for conducting more applied experiments with fusion energy companies under the auspices of Cooperative Research & Development Agreements (CRADAs) beginning in 2025.”

Image courtesy of First Light Fusion