First Light Fusion Generates Neutrons
First Light used a large two-stage hyper-velocity gas gun to launch a projectile at a target, containing the fusion fuel and achieved fusion. The projectile reached a speed of 6.5 km per second before impact. First Light’s highly sophisticated target focuses this impact, with the fuel accelerated to over 70 km per second (151,000 mph) as it implodes, an increase in velocity achieved through their proprietary advanced target design, making it the fastest moving object on earth at that point.
They confirmed the production of deuterium-deuterium (DD) fusion neutrons by an inertial confinement fusion target that is driven by a one-sided impact. Experiments were performed on First Light Fusion’s 38 mm bore, two-stage light gas gun. This facility can launch a 100 g solid projectile at 6.5 km s−1. Neutron diagnostics included scintillators and moderated helium-3 proportional counters. They have demonstrated repeatable, coincident detection of particles on multiple scintillator detectors, within the expected time window.
First Light has received about $107 million in funding and they just raised a series C. They were founded in 2011.
Target Dates for First Light and Competing Fusion Projects
First Light Fusion made big promises back in 2020. The University of Oxford spin-off called First Light Fusion claimed in 2020 it would demonstrate breakeven in 2024. Breakeven has slipped to 2025-2026.
First Light is building an ICF reactor in which the “claw” consists of a metal disk-shaped projectile and a cube with a cavity filled with deuterium-tritium fuel. The projectile’s impact creates shock waves, which produce cavitation bubbles in the fuel. As the bubbles collapse, the fuel within them is compressed long enough and forcefully enough to fuse. In 2020, Hawker said First Light hopes to initiate its first fusion reaction this year in 2020. Howeveer, the first fusion reaction was in 2020. It is likely that the demonstration net energy gain has slipped from 2024 to 2026. Fusion energy doesn’t just need to be scientifically feasible but it needs to be commercially viable. Successful demonstrations should lead to a planned commercial pilot plant, which it is currently targeting in for “the early 2030s”.
US-based Helion raised US$500mln. Helion plans build its Polaris fusion electricity demonstration generator, which it aims to demonstrate net electricity from fusion in 2024 and enable its long-term goal of producing electricity with no carbon emissions for 1 cent per kilowatt-hour. Helion has 40ft-long accelerators shaped like a giant dumbbell. They heat deuterium and helium-3 fuel. Helion uses powerful magnets to confine the resulting plasma and ramp up the pressure to create a relatively stable donut-shaped ring of plasma called a Field Reversed Configuration (FRC). Two of these FRCs are then accelerated to 1 million mph from opposite ends of its accelerator. When they collide in the bulging handle of the dumbbell shaped accelerator they are further compressed by more magnets until they reach fusion temperatures of 100mln °C.
Back in 2020 in Cambridge, Mass., MIT-affiliated researchers at Commonwealth Fusion Systems say their latest reactor design is on track to exceed breakeven by 2025.
The California startup TAE Technologies had issued a breathtakingly ambitious five-year timeline for the commercialization of its fusion reactor. However, 2025 was only the target for when they would get clearly on the path to commercializaation. The current TAE Copernicus is a reactor-scale device designed to operate at about 100mln °C to simulate net energy production from its fuel cycle and so “will provide opportunities to license its technology for D-T fusion, while scaling to its ultimate goal”. TAE wants to start commercialisation of p-B11 fusion power plants “beginning by the late 2020s”. Start of commercialization is confusingly not a working commercial reactor but some nebulous kickoff to the final commercialization project.
Details of First Light Fusion
Projectile fusion is a new approach to inertial fusion that is simpler, more energy-efficient, and has lower physics risk. Inertial fusion is a pulsed process, where, like an internal combustion engine, a small amount of fuel is injected and sparked to make it burn. The main existing approach to inertial fusion uses a large laser as the “spark plug”, triggering the reaction.
Announcement! We are delighted to announce that we have achieved fusion – a world-first with our unique new target technology. The @UKAEAofficial has independently validated our result.
— First Light Fusion (@FLFusion) April 5, 2022
Target Design is the Key First Light Technology
Projectile fusion has been considered before and the required velocity was found to be very high. First Light’s target technology is the crucial game-changer. Our targets have two aspects, an amplifier and a fuel capsule. The amplifier does two things, it boosts the pressure generated by the impact of the projectile, delivering a much higher pressure to the fuel. This amplification reduces the required projectile velocity; the fuel implodes much faster than the original impact.
The amplifier also creates convergence. Whilst the initial impact comes from only one side, the fuel is squashed from many directions. This is crucial for reaching the required final density.
The targets are the key technology in First Light’s approach to fusion and they are nearly all trade secrets. One example uses three cavities, two big and one small. The collapse of the two bigger cavities focuses the pressure onto the small one in between, which is collapsed with a higher pressure and from two sides rather than one.
Comparing First Lught target design to other fusion approaches using the triple product shows the unique space that First Light occupies. The targets achieve very high values of the density-time product and span a previously unexplored parameter space. To reach gain, they need to increase the temperature, and the principal way to do this is to increase the projectile velocity.
Inspired by Nature
First Light’s journey to a new method for fusion started in nature, with the pistol shrimp. The pistol shrimp has an oversized claw, which it can “click” shut at very high speed. The motion is so fast that it launches a shock wave into the water and stresses it so much that it rips apart and forms a bubble. The shock wave and the bubble interact and the bubble collapses just as quickly as it forms. The vapour inside is heated to tens of thousands of degrees and emits a bright flash of light.
The first Light inertial fusion is a pulsed process, like an internal combustion engine. Each target releases a large amount of energy; the power output is the energy per shot multiplied by the frequency. A pulsed approach gives great design flexibility, trading off energy per shot and frequency. First Light is aiming the lowest risk plant design possible. High energy per shot reduces physics risk, and slower frequency and small overall plant size reduce the engineering risk.
The target will simply be dropped into the reaction chamber from above, falling under gravity. The projectile is launched downwards on top of the target and catches it up in the centre of the chamber. The impact is focused by the target and a pulse of fusion energy* is released. That energy is absorbed by the lithium flowing inside the vessel, heating it up. Finally, a heat exchanger transfers the heat of the lithium to water, generating steam that turns a turbine and produces electricity.
This plant design avoids the three biggest engineering challenges of fusion: preventing neutron damage, producing tritium, and managing extreme heat flux. Lithium is used to produce tritium, one of the two fusion fuels. The design allows tritium self-sufficiency with pure lithium in the natural isotope balance. This is a major advantage as the only by-product is helium, and there is an established supply chain for normal lithium.
The thick liquid lithium also blocks the neutrons from reaching the vessel, meaning that it will last for the lifetime of the plant. The liquid first wall also addresses the issue of very high heat flux. Some of the lithium will be vapourised by the energy release, but it simply recondenses.
There is a large amount of existing engineering that can be reused to realise this plant design. Fast breeder reactors, a type of nuclear plant, use liquid metal as the coolant, typically sodium or sodium-potassium mixture. The engineering from these plants can be ported over to lithium. After the lithium heat exchanger, the plant is identical to many other already working facilities. Most of the cost is low risk engineering.
They are aiming for a power plant producing ~150 MW of electricity, firing once every 30 seconds, and costing less than $1 billion.
UKAEA have conducted a review of First Light Fusion Ltd’s recent (485 series) experimental campaign. The UKAEA technical team involved have had the opportunity to interact with the FLF experimental team as part of the review. The review included assessments of the experimental planning, scientific equipment used and associated diagnostics, processes to extract and analyse the data obtained from the diagnostics and analysis included within the associated experimental report.
The experimental campaign comprised 21 high velocity impact experiments (‘shots’) overall. 12 of these were reported to have used deuterium-fuelled (base-case) targets, one was a deuterium design variant shot, four were H2 null shots and a further four were test shots. UKAEA staff witnessed a sub-set of these which were two deuterium-fuelled target shots; the first was a deuterium shot on the 22nd February 2022 which yielded no detection events (reportedly due to projectile failure); the second (successful) shot on the 4th March 2022 yielded three scintillator events and a single 3He detection event within the defined time windows.
In assessing the experimental campaign as a whole the diagnostic data obtained and analyses performed from the experiments in aggregate, and with detailed consideration of terrestrial background or other potential sources of spurious signals, we support FLF’s finding that high energy particles have been detected. In the context of fusion experiments the number of events detected is small. However, the events detected and the associated temporal analysis are sufficient to indicate a link to the impact experiments using deuterium-loaded targets. The aggregated time-of-flight data comprising 29 detection events obtained using the scintillator array (each event corresponds to the detection of a single particle), together with the basic analysis performed to estimate a neutron energy range provides some evidence that neutrons have been produced which would be consistent with the energy of those produced in D-D fusion processes. The supporting 3He detection events within an expected time window following the expected fusion time are fewer, though in aggregate do provide some complementary evidence through a separate detection system to the scintillator array that neutrons are present.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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