Fusion’s Time is (Finally) Coming

Every aspect of nuclear fusion is like something out of science fiction: particles flying at hypersonic speeds, synchronised laser arrays, liquid metal and super-strong magnets, all in the service of abundant clean energy.

It sounds too good to be true – and for a long time, it has been. Fusion has always been beyond reach, always twenty or thirty years away. But that might finally be changing. On this week’s podcast, I spoke to one of the people working to make it a reality.

Nick Hawker is the co-founder and CEO of First Light Fusion, an Oxford-based company using a novel method to tackle one of science’s hardest problems. He and I discussed how and when nuclear fusion might become part of our energy mix, and what hurdles we’ll have to jump to get there.

🎧 You can listen to our conversation here, or 📝 read a full transcript.

The Big Idea
The general principle of nuclear fusion is relatively simple: two light atoms are bonded together to form one, heavier atom. That process releases energy. One example: an atom of deuterium and an atom of tritium – both isotopes of hydrogen – can be fused to make helium (and release energy):

Source: UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

That process can be carried out in two main ways. Magnetic confinement fusion squeezes the particles together using magnetic fields, inducing fusion. The most common type of magnetic confinement system is the tokamak, but there are other approaches including stellarators and field-reversed configuration systems. In inertial confinement fusion, the most common approach is to use lasers to heat and compress the deuterium and tritium fuel.

While fusion has largely been funded by public sector investments, small amounts of venture capital have been flowing into teams for about a decade. Things had started to get more serious by 2017... but 2021 has proven to be a stonking year with more than $2.5bn of capital flowing into fusion startups.

Venture capital investment into nuclear fusion startups

Source: Dealroom

A New Approach
First Light’s method is a variation on inertial confinement fusion. The firm doesn’t use lasers to implode hydrogen isotopes:

[W]hat were doing is a new method for inertial fusion, which we call projectile fusion. What we do is we fire a high-velocity projectile that flies for a short distance and it hits the target... we launch our projectile with electromagnetic forces, so its like a railgun.

Nick’s approach has a number of advantages (over and above the fact the company gets to put out press releases with titles like ‘First Light Fusion Installs UK’s Biggest Two-Stage Hyper-Velocity Gas Gun’). Not only is the projectile fusion approach more energy-efficient than using lasers, but it does away with the need to build geometrically complicated laser arrays in an extremely hostile environment.

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