While many entrepreneurs metaphorically ‘shoot for the stars’ when addressing complex problems, this has a much more literal meaning in the nuclear fusion energy space. Fusion, the process that powers our sun, has the potential to be a near-limitless source of low-carbon, low-radiation energy on Earth.
“If you want fusion to really make a difference to the climate and the energy system, we need to be able to build it out quickly,” says Nicholas Hawker, the co-founder and CEO of First Light Fusion (FLF), a University of Oxford spin-out that has been working on a new method of inertial fusion since 2011.
At least 35 such companies are working on fusion worldwide, according to the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), with many aiming to prove it can work at a commercial scale and provide clean electricity to the grid as early as the 2030s.
Mr Hawker says that it is “positive” that several start-ups are working towards the same goal as it gives “more chances” for the notoriously difficult fusion process to work. The FIA says a single gram of fusion fuel yields 70,000 kilowatt hours of energy — enough to power six average US households for a whole year.
Fusion is essentially the opposite of nuclear fission. It is typically done by forcing together two hydrogen isotopes — tritium and deuterium — in a process that requires, but also releases, huge amounts of energy.
While other fusion experiments use either high-powered magnets or lasers, Mr Hawker says that FLF’s novel approach of firing a high-velocity projectile at a target containing deuterium fuel could offer a faster and cheaper route to commercial fusion power.
After more than 40 previous experiments, the British start-up achieved fusion using this approach for the first time in its lab in November 2021. This result was officially validated by the UK Atomic Energy Agency and announced in April 2022.
Mr Hawker says the next step is for them to build a “gain demonstrator”, which will demonstrate “more energy out than in” from the fusion reaction, before developing a 150-megawatt pilot plant at a cost of less than $1bn in the 2030s.
“Fusion fits within the established model [of using electricity]. The problem we have is getting to the scale that you need with clean power,” says Mr Hawker. “We need to be building out everything, including solar and wind, as rapidly as we possibly can.”
While there remains a “debugging process” through experiments required before reaching commercial scale, Mr Hawker says that FLF’s pilot plant will rely in large part on existing technology and materials, making it potentially more viable than other fusion approaches.
“The supply chain is very important for fusion,” he says. “If you’ve got a new material that you have to use in your power plant, it is really going to slow down your development to be able to build it out at scale.”
Mr Hawker explains that while many fusion power plants must use enriched lithium to produce tritium, there is no existing supply chain for the material.
“Our system can use non-enriched normal lithium, which is the supply chain for batteries, so there’s loads of it,” he says, adding that their plant will also use a type of steel called P91, which is already readily available.
As start-ups work “as fast as possible to solve problems” in the path to commercial scale, Mr Hawker hopes that fusion will change negative public perception about nuclear energy and play a fundamental role in our low-carbon futures.
“Fusion is a much lower risk profile [than nuclear fission] and can act as a transformative baseload energy source for the future,” he concludes.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.