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The Holy Grail Of Energy Generation
A primer to nuclear fusion and First Light Fusion, 8 funding rounds, performance marketing, the role of Engineering Managers, Decentralised Science, jobs, events, and more
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The Holy Grail Of Energy Generation
The promise of nuclear fusion is no longer a pipe dream. A virtually limitless energy source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste — a clean and safe way to power our homes and industry. This ‘holy grail’ of energy — or the physical process which powers the sun — has eluded practical application for decades, but there are signs that a bright future might be on the horizon. I couldn't think of a better person to help us deep dive into this fascinating space than Yiannis Ventikos, co-founder of First Light Fusion and Kennedy Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at University College London. In 2011, Yiannis and Nick Hawker started First Light Fusion, a spin-off from the University of Oxford, with the vision to solve the problem of fusion power with the simplest machine possible. To do that they have raised over $100m and put together a world-class team of researchers and engineers. We learn:
what is fusion power and how it’s generated
how different teams around the world try to get energy gain from fusion
the pathway to the first fusion powerplant by First Light Fusion
why humanity needs to substantially increase its clean energy expenditure to reverse environmental damage
how we can transform our planet’s energy mix in a clean and sustainable way
Let’s get to it!
Yianni, I appreciate you taking the time. It’s great to have you here. What we’re going to discuss today is so fascinating and potentially game-changing for energy generation. So let's start with the basics. What is fusion power?
YV: Alex, it is really a pleasure to be here! So, fusion is the set of processes — physical processes — that powers the sun and all the stars. It is the only primordial source of energy in the universe because every other source of energy we currently have is a cascade of that first type of energy generation. How does it work? As you know, when you have particles, atoms, molecules that are charged with charges of the same sign, positively or negatively, they tend to repel each other. This is because of Coulomb's law (like charges repel each other, while opposite charges attract each other). So if you have two nuclei, which are comprised of protons and neutrons, you cannot get them close together as they repel each other due to this same positive charge repulsion. In order for them to get close, you need to move them towards each other at very high speeds. When this happens, other types of forces that exist in our universe take over, and the nuclei merge, they fuse, as they say. The bigger the nuclei, the more difficult it is to do that, so it’s easier with the smallest one — the hydrogen nuclei. Some isotopes of hydrogen, especially deuterium, which is a proton and a neutron, or tritium, a proton and two neutrons, when they have enough velocity to get close together, they fuse. And what they release are neutrons that go very fast. Now, the important thing here is that this neutron kinetic energy that is released could be energy that we can harvest. This is what we mean by fusion energy: capturing energy from particles that are shed at very high velocity from fusing.
There are three boxes we need to tick, in order to overcome this repulsion I mentioned before and get the nuclei very close. And this is not an easy feat. We need high temperature (think a hundred million degrees), high density (have a lot of these nuclei in a very small space), and keep the nuclei in that small space long enough for them to “react”. The sun achieves that by having a lot of gravity which keeps everything in place, compressing it. We cannot replicate this on earth, so fusion experiments attempt to satisfy these rules through different means.
When most people hear about nuclear energy, they think of radioactive waste disposal, radiation-releasing nuclear accidents, and nuclear weapons. We associate nuclear with fission, not fusion. Can you explain how fusion is different?
YV: Both are physical processes that produce massive amounts of energy from atoms. But, fission is the exact opposite of fusion. Instead of fusing nuclei together, you split a big and heavy one into smaller nuclei. This process releases some of the energy that was there, keeping them together. And this is a lot of energy. It's very substantial amounts that people can harvest to produce electricity, as they do in existing nuclear reactors nowadays. I should say that, although the comparison is not entirely fair, fusion produces a lot more energy than fission per unit mass that “burns” completely.
Even though research into fusion reactors started years ago, we still haven’t created a design that’s efficient in a way that produces more energy than the reaction consumes. So we’re still not at the stage where fusion power can serve as an efficient form of energy generation for humanity. Why is that?
YV: I believe that research on fusion initially started for military applications. People thought that if we can get so much energy output from a fission bomb, maybe we can get even more output from a fusion bomb, and eliminate some of the adverse negative effects such as the amount of radiation. That was the idea. At some point, people realised that by scaling this down, we could take it to a size where the actual reaction is not a catastrophic gigantic explosion, but something that can be contained and harvested. Then, of course, the most obvious thing to do was to start small and build up. Several projects fall under this premise such as Tokamak, JET (the Joint European Torus) or NIF (National Ignition Facility). This has been going on since the 1960s and 1970s with some very big efforts being put in place in the 1990s. Finally, in the last decades, there have been many more teams working on fusion, including not only government-led but also private companies.
Now, you have to understand that fusion is a genuinely very difficult problem, which has required substantial advances in our understanding of physics and engineering. The physics is challenging, but at the same time, the engineering part for harvesting fusion is not obvious at all. Let me explain what I mean by that. One of the most promising facilities where people try to break the “gain equals one” barrier (produce more power than what is put in) is the National Ignition Facility in the US. The initial investment was around 4 billion dollars. This facility has close to 200 of the most powerful lasers on Earth and putting them together in a perfect alignment to shoot at a very particular sequence on a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium mixture held at cryogenic conditions — this makes for a highly complex experiment! Let’s assume that everything works perfectly and we get energy gain from this — so the difficult science part is done. Well, how do you capture and convert those neutrons flying out, wanting to crash into everything on their way, into electricity? The energy is there, but how do you make something useful out of it (which could then be used for power generation)? This is the hard engineering part. If you add those up, you realise why this has taken so many years and it’s still work in progress.
Only recently, I would say in the last 10 years, people have started thinking in genuine commercial terms with private companies — including our own venture, First Light Fusion — entering the game, taking risks and acting way faster, away from bureaucratic procedures and big government operations. What happened in this industry, as it happened in other industries in the past as well, was that big government experiments around the world produced basic knowledge and understanding, and then smaller agile companies are taking this knowledge onboard and converting it into engineering that may mean something commercially interesting. An industry where this worked very well is the space industry, right? Decades ago the only actors were NASA and ESA. Now, when someone thinks of space the first thing that comes to mind is SpaceX. This is probably the best of both worlds and is the way things are going to move the fastest.
Let’s zoom into First Light Fusion now. You achieved fusion in the lab some months ago (source) and the result was validated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Can you share more about the progress your team has made and what makes First Light’s design different from other teams?
YV: Let me first point out that First Light is a very scientifically oriented organisation. A result might have been achieved months or years before it’s reported as we want to make sure that there’s no hidden weirdness anywhere. That an experiment can be repeatable, that we can get exactly what the simulations are producing, and that we can have external validation. So as I started saying before, First Light, is a company that follows a fresh, agile approach. We built our first major pulse power machine in under a year, whereas a government entity would need five years and 10 times the cost for a similar outcome.
In a nutshell, the way our technology works is that we have an entity, let’s call it a cavity or a bubble, that has the fusion fuel (a mixture of deuterium and tritium) in it. We use a mass (we call it the projectile), like a small flyer plate, that is shot from a machine and is given a very high velocity. This object flies and impacts on the material that is holding the fule cavity I mentioned before. This impact generates a very intense shock wave, which is a jump in pressure. Through some very advanced and smart application of hydrodynamics, this shockwave is amplified and shaped in such a way that it makes the fuel cavity collapse in a very intense way. This amplified collapse is so strong that it creates fusion conditions (check this animation here). Right now, we achieve velocities of 20km/sec — 20km/sec is fast, right? You’d go from one side of Athens to the other in a second or two if you were to fly that fast.
We have different ways to achieve very high projectile velocities. One way is a very big two-stage gas gun, which can reach velocities of 7km/h or 8 km/h. The most exciting machine we use though is a pulse power machine with hundreds of very big capacitors that store electricity. This machine can accelerate a small piece of metal from 0 to 20km/sec within a distance of 2cm. I don’t even know how big that acceleration is. It might be a billion g (a billion times the acceleration due to gravity).
A lot of interesting things happen when it comes to shaping and amplifying the original shock wave into something that can achieve very intense bubble collapse conditions, and this is also where a big part of our IP and trade secrets are involved. Remember what we said in the beginning? That to optimise the fusion result, we need high temperature, high density, and maintain these conditions long enough. We continue to finetune all those aspects, so we can generate more power than what’s required and break the “gain equals one” barrier. This is easier said than done if you think that this process takes nanoseconds, temperatures are at the level of 20, 30 or 50 million degrees, etc. You can actually see First Light's reactor concept animated in the following video.
What are the next steps for First Light Fusion?
YV: Ok, so even if we do fantastically well with the existing machines we still cannot achieve “gain equals one”. They are not powerful enough to go to gain. So at the same time, we are designing the new machine, which is going to be a hundred times bigger in terms of what it can do, compared to the ones we have and will increase the speed at which the projectile hits the target. We need to go maybe 2, 3, or 4 times faster than where we are now. To come up with these targets we have run a huge amount of simulations to confirm what we expect to see. And this is something we do religiously at First Light — we use the power of computer simulations to inform our decision-making process.
A big milestone is of course to demonstrate a “gain experiment”, where roughly speaking, the energy that you take out of the experiment is more than the energy that you put in. Then you start incorporating those design principles into a reactor, which is the next big step towards having the first fusion powerplant. In fact, the technology we are thinking of can be retrofitted into an existing powerplant. All you’d have to do is replace the combustion component, where the fossil fuel combustion takes place nowadays and might be natural gas, coal or oil that burns and produces steam, with the fusion island.
Let’s assume that we’ll soon have energy gain from fusion and we’ll soon have fusion reactors, right? What’s the best way to think about its potential to transform the world's energy mix?
YV: If we compare fusion to other forms of energy generation, in terms of energy density, it’s really at the forefront due to the core physics that produces the energy. There’s no comparison really — fusion is extremely energy dense and excellent for baseload production. The question that we have put a lot of effort to answer is whether there will be enough demand for fusion energy so that the capital investment required to create fusion power plants makes sense. Based on our analysis, this is a definitive yes and I can explain where this confidence comes from. How will the energy market behave 10, 20, 30 years from now? If you take the most optimistic scenario for renewables deployment and at the same time the most conservative scenario of the world’s energy requirements, for some countries, the gap is going to be around 30% - 40% or more. And this is a huge gap. For instance, think of a country such as India, where it might need 40% more electricity than it can have, even if full and best use of traditional renewables happens. This gap will end up being covered by existing “dirty” power generation options — coal, in most cases. Unless something like fusion comes in to provide the capacity to bridge this gap in energy requirements, all the targets we are setting for greenhouse emissions go down the drain.
I know this is a million-dollar question, but I’ll go ahead and make it anyway — have we crossed the point of no return when it comes to global emissions?
YV: Now, this is completely speculative but this is where I think the world is going. There is almost an accepted dogma that says that if we reduce our emissions and achieve our net zero targets, we can stop or possibly reverse climate change. I believe this is far from reality. We will realize more and more that in order to reverse the damage we have done, passive measures to reduce CO2 emissions are not enough by themselves. We have to do this for sure, we must absolutely strive to achieve net zero as soon as possible, but in my pessimistic maybe view that is not enough. Even if we were to stop CO2 emissions completely today, you know, civilization switches off 100%, that's not enough. I think that we will need to take active measures in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Some of them will be very “green”, for instance, increasing the planet’s forest coverage. But, I suspect that we are going to need to do a lot more in terms of CO2 capture by doing things that are very energy intensive. To make a long story short, in order to reverse the damage we've already done, we will need to increase the energy expenditure substantially — sounds almost like a paradox. And this cannot be done without very clean and sustainable energy, otherwise, it's pointless. One of the ways to do this is of course fusion.
So I really think that within the next 10 to 20 years, fusion will have an indispensable and irreplaceable role to play in our energy mix.
Yianni, thank you so much for taking the time, it was great to talk to you!
YV: Thanks Alex, it was a pleasure!
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