A British fusion company and Oxford University spin-off, First Light Fusion, claims to have achieved nuclear fusion without relying on powerful lasers and magnets by using a new “projectile” approach.
Its new method offers “the fastest, easiest and cheapest route to commercial fusion power,” the company explains in a press release. Surprisingly, it is inspired by one of the smallest ocean creatures, the shrimp.
A new method of nuclear fusion
Governments around the world are increasingly supporting nuclear fusion companies because they have the potential to provide virtually limitless clean energy. Nuclear fusion generates electricity using the same method as the Sun and stars – by smashing atoms together so they fuse into heavier elements and release large amounts of energy.
Most large tokamak projects, like the one developed by the Bill Gates-backed MIT startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems relies on incredibly powerful lasers and magnets to contain incredibly hot plasma reactions.
The First Light Fusion method takes a completely different approach. Using a railgun, the Enterprise fires a projectile at a falling target at hypersonic speed, allowing it to generate timed collapsing shockwaves that momentarily create levels of pressure nearly a billion times greater than atmospheric pressure at sea level.
These pressure levels are high enough to cause small embedded deuterium fuel pellets to implode at velocities high enough to overcome nuclear repulsion and initiate fusion reactions.
Inspired by the power of the pistol shrimp
First Light explains that its technique is inspired by the pistol shrimp, which shoots bubbles at unsuspecting prey by snapping its claws at such high speeds that it creates a shockwave and even emits a flash of light.
The company devised a method, based on the pistol shrimp technique, that could create the conditions necessary for fusion. The company’s projectile fires using an electromagnetic design that allows it to reach massive speeds of over 14,500 mph. When the projectile hits the falling target, the impact pressure is about 100 gigapascals. Due to the design of the target, this pressure is amplified to approximately one terapascal. When the fuel pellet implodes, the final measure can reach a massive pressure of 100 terapascals.
According to First Light, this makes fuel the fastest moving object on Earth, reaching speeds of 157,000 mph. The fuel pellet is compressed from a few millimeters to less than 100 microns, which is enough for fusion reactions to take place. The company transfers this energy via heat exchanger transfer and a liquid lithium pool.
First Light says a commercial power plant using its design would have an output of around 744 MW, which is slightly less than the typical nuclear power plant, but with no risk of meltdown. The company said it made the merger using its design and was “to work towards a pilot plant producing ~150 MW of electricity and costing less than $1 billion in the 2030s.”