The search for clean, abundant energy

Written by: Tom Austin-Morgan | Published:

Oxford-based energy generation and inertial confinement fusion research organisation, First Light Fusion is investing £3.6 million to build a pulsed power machine to advance the company’s work exploring fusion.

The device, labelled Machine 3, is under construction and on track to be commissioned by the end of 2018. It will be the only pulsed power machine of its scale in the world dedicated to researching fusion energy. Once complete, it will be capable of discharging up to 200,000 volts and in excess of 14 million ampere within two microseconds. The Machine will use around 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, the same process that powers stars.

First Light uses a high-velocity projectile to create a shockwave to collapse a cavity containing plasma inside a ‘target’.

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 difficulties, both relating to the fusion process itself but also the complexity of the engineering required. First Light must demonstrate fusion before 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 simpler, quicker and cheaper than these mainstream approaches.

First Light’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. 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: “We are confident that we will reach our present goal of demonstrating fusion. Beyond that, the experimental platform that we can build with this machine will give us critical insights into the next step, which is to demonstrate gain.”

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