Breakthrough in nuclear fusion: Expert explains the revolutionary principle

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Written By Marc Helman

Tackling new challenges with a passion for the environment.

A British company is currently trying to revolutionize Nuclear Fusion. The so-called projectile-based inertial Fusion model is based on a sea creature: the pistol shrimp.

Inside our sun, an uninterrupted fusion process takes place in which hydrogen atomic nuclei fuse to form helium. The result of this reaction is the resulting enormous heat and the life-giving light of the sun. 

People on Earth have been trying to use nuclear Fusion to provide energy for some time now. 

The principle is promising – the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics calculates that if deuterium and tritium were to fuse to form helium, one gram of fuel could be enough to generate 90,000 kilowatt-hours of energy in a power plant. 

That would be equivalent to the combustion heat of 11 tons of coal. So far, however, attempts to produce stable nuclear Fusion have repeatedly failed because of the large amounts of energy that must be invested in the process, making it unprofitable.

“Projectile-based inertial fusion” aims to simplify the fusion process

Now the British company First Light Fusion wants to revolutionize the principle: Using “project-based inertial fusion” to make the fusion process simpler, more energy-efficient, and less risky.

Previous inertial fusion methods rely on large lasers as a spark plug that ignites the fuel and triggers the fusion reaction. FirstLight Fusion plans to use a projectile accelerated to extremely high speeds instead.

First Light’s target technology uses two parts to revolutionize the process: an amplifier and a fuel capsule. The amplifier has two purposes: It amplifies the pressure generated by the projectile’s impact and exerts much higher pressure on the fuel. This amplification is intended to reduce the required projectile velocity, causing the fuel to implode faster. 

The amplifier also triggers convergence: While the impact in ordinary inertial Fusion comes from only one side, First Light’s process “squishes” the fuel from many directions. This is said to be crucial to achieving the required final density.

Physicist Dr. Ben Miles explains on YouTube how the British principle works. In doing so, Miles draws on a sea creature for comparison: the pistol shrimp, a type of shrimp that has a larger pair of scissors on one side that it can mechanically stretch open and then snap shut.

The scissors snap shut with such force and speed that the crab creates a shock wave in the water when it does. Miles explains that the water is “ruptured,” causing a gas bubble to form for a very short moment. 

The inside of the bubble briefly reaches temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees, even producing a flash of light.

FirstLight Fusion’s concept is comparable to this mechanism. The collapse of the “bubble” from many directions would be important to achieve the density required to start the fusion process.

1000 times cheaper than comparable systems

Miles points out that First Light Fusion still needs a lot of research and building to address the process. However, he says the team is focusing on exactly the right aspects – for example, forgoing the expensive laser and instead relying on the cheaper electromagnetic acceleration of the projectile is exactly the right approach from an economic standpoint. 

He said that the system could ultimately be 1000 times cheaper than comparable inertial fusion systems, thanks to these and other design choices.

If it turns out that FirstLight can implement the actual principle safely and economically, the rest – building a power plant to make the resulting energy usable – would not be so difficult. 

Existing processes and technologies could be used for this purpose. 

Miles speaks of a commercialization period of “about ten years,” – which may not sound very uplifting, but the alternative processes would still need at least 30 years, the physicist explains.