Inside First Light Fusion's fight to solve clean energy and save the planet
Nuclear energy with no meltdowns and barely any waste. Can nuclear fusion beat the skeptics?
From the outside, the southern England Oxford Industrial Park doesn’t look like the heart of a potential climate change breakthrough. A small, drab smattering of concrete, flanked by flat green fields, with a dreary overcast sky above. But hidden behind the doors of First Light Fusion, the world’s largest nuclear fusion machine of its kind is using a railgun-like setup to try and create massive amounts of clean energy.
First Light Fusion’s pitch is simple. Climate change is happening, and we need to switch to cleaner sources of energy. Existing renewable technologies like solar and wind are useful, but even under best-case projections they’re not enough. To meet our climate goals, to avoid ecological meltdown, we need something more. The answer, the company claims, is nuclear fusion.
Perhaps the best way to think about fusion energy is as the opposite of nuclear fission, the process used in what is casually called “nuclear power.” Both processes involve releasing energy to heat water, creating steam that moves a turbine that generates electricity. If fission is about splitting an atomic nucleus apart to release energy, fusion is about smashing nuclei together to create a bigger nucleus. The latter process is taking place as you read this inside the Sun and other stars. And, if First Light has their way, an industrial park in Oxford.
The company believes it will achieve fusion before 2019 is over and excitement is bubbling. In October, prime minister Boris Johnson promised £200 million ($253 million) more funding for fusion technology during a speech at Culham’s Joint European Torus fusion research centre, around 30 miles south of First Light Fusion’s headquarters.
“They are on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world. Now I know they have been on the verge for some time. It is a pretty spacious kind of verge,” Johnson declared, perhaps alluding to the alternative British meaning of “verge” as a patch of grass next to the road.
Indicating the skepticism that surrounds nuclear fusion, Johnson’s comments were derided by experts in the field. Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre at University College London, told Research Fortnight magazine that the comments were “wrong…it is several decades away.”
Nick Hawker, the young and soft-spoken CEO-slash-co-founder of First Light Fusion, seems unfazed by the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. As he draws several boxes on the whiteboard to explain the processes at play, he exudes the energy less of a thought leader giving a TED talk about the future of humanity, and more of a science teacher quietly pleased that his student is asking why exactly A equals B.
What motivates Hawker? What’s driving this desire to save the world? Is he a long-time eco-warrior, or a scientist fearful of the end of the world?
“A big part of the motivation now is climate change,” Hawker tells Inverse. “But, if I’m being completely honest about it, um, the initial attraction was simply because it’s the hardest problem in the world.”
The problem is that current renewable energy technologies may not be able to entirely transition humanity completely away from fossil fuels. The company’s own-commissioned report found that wind and solar could provide 19,900 terawatt-hours of global energy by 2040, eight times more than today but less than half of what’s needed. This is a similar finding to a July 2019 report from Resources for the Future, which found under ambitious projections that renewables will account for 31 percent by that date. Oil giant BP also found in February 2019 that renewables will account for 30 percent by 2040.
First Light Fusion’s goal is to bridge that gap. In doing so, however, it could have far-reaching consequences that are hard to predict even now.
“Most jumps in humankind progress have been because there was a new source of energy being discovered,” Gianluca Pisanello, chief operating officer, tells Inverse. “And this is it. Now we are in desperate need to find a new form of energy that can be used and that is clean.”
Fusion energy: the long-promised hope
If you’re skeptical about the company’s claims, that’s understandable. The Guardian in 2014 described fusion as a technology that “has been ‘30 years away’ for several decades.” First Light Fusion claims its approach is different to what’s come before, which becomes more apparent after a quick primer on the ideas at play.
Fusion involves taking very light atoms and smashing them together at very high velocity. These atoms tend to be isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium. The goal is to move them together fast enough that the two positively-charged nuclei overcome electrostatic repulsion — as you might remember from playing with magnets, like-for-like repels. If you get these nuclei close enough, the strong fundamental force of the universe kicks in.
So what you need is a really fast gun of some sort, right? Not quite. You need three factors: heat, density, and time. The heat needs to be somewhere around 100 million degrees, because temperature is a measurement of the velocity of the particles and we need that high velocity to get them close. Density allows the nuclei to find each other. You also need enough time for those reactions to happen, which can vary between hours or nanoseconds. High temperature is critical, but the latter two factors can trade their measurements off against each other: low density is acceptable with a lot of time, while a short space of time is fine if the density is high.
From these three guidelines, two varieties of man-made nuclear fusion have emerged. Magnetic fusion, as the name suggests, holds magnetized plasma in a confinement system called a tokamak. This offers very low density, lower than the air in a room, but lasts for hours. Perhaps the most famous example of this is ITER in southern France, the world’s largest fusion experiment that involves 35 countries. It’s perhaps best considered like a furnace, where operators keep adding fuel to the tokamak.
On the other hand, there’s inertial confinement fusion. This tries to make the reaction happen so fast that the plasma doesn’t have time to relax. Unlike the magnetic approach the plasma isn’t strictly confined, which is why the reaction is very short. The density reaches as high as lead, and the temperatures as high as the sun. The process only lasts for around 10 nanoseconds.
It’s best to think of it like an internal combustion engine, which repeats a reaction over and over. But there is a real-world example of inertial confinement on Earth: the pistol shrimp, which creates a shockwave to attack prey by clicking its claw at speed.
This shrimp-inspired approach is the one favored by First Light Fusion, which envisions repeating the pulse around once every five seconds. It’s also favored by the National Ignition Facility in California.
But where the NIF uses 192 laser beams to power the reaction, First Light Fusion uses its railgun-like approach to power the reaction, which the company believes solves three problems. It avoids the incredible heat flux seen in other experiments that places materials under intense pressure. Superconducting magnets need to stay around a few Kelvin, while remaining close to the ultra-hot reaction.
“You have the hottest thing in the solar system, maybe in the galaxy, two metres (~6.5 feet) away from almost zero Kelvin,” Pisanello says.
The second problem is the neutron flux, which can embrittle materials and require more frequent maintenance cycles. The third is radioactive waste, which First Light Fusion’s approach should reduce.
If the word “radioactive” calls to mind scenes from the TV series Chernobyl, the team is quick to explain that this is nothing like the waste produced by a nuclear power plant.
“This really is not the same level of risk at all,” Hawker says. “It is a very, very different question.”
That’s a marked difference between fusion and fission waste, the team says, which can stay radioactive for thousands of years. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, fusion reactors produce only inert helium and tritium, which it also consumes. Tritium is radioactive but has a short half-life of decades. A fusion reactor could theoretically store waste on-site, then by the time it needs decommissioning the materials would be safe.
There is also no risk of a fission-style meltdown. As viewers of Chernobyl may remember, fission is a delicate balancing act to keep a reaction under control. If a fusion reaction goes awry, say the target misses, there’s no out-of-control radioactive meltdown. The system simply fails to produce any energy.
First Light Fusion: firing on all cylinders
The front lobby of First Light Fusion is rather unassuming, with a reception area that leads through on the left to a standard office space. A display case houses one of the company’s test fire projectiles, one of the only signs that something special is hiding behind the doors.
Walking through from the reception to the rear door, a warehouse-like area houses the reactors. Visitors inside the area are required to cover their shoes before stepping through a factory door into a smaller room that houses the machine.
This is where the magic happens. Machine 3, a £3.6 million ($4.7 million) machine completed in February, uses three kilometers (~1.86 miles) of high voltage cables and 10 kilometers (~6.2 mi) of diagnostic cables to fire a projectile at 20 kilometers per second (~44,738 MPH), the equivalent of flying from London to New York in four minutes. It’s the largest pulsed power machine dedicated to fusion energy research. One test firing with Machine 3 uses up to 200,000 volts in two microseconds, more power in that moment than the United States and China national grids combined. It’s huge.
In a side room connected to the reactor, an intricate series of mirrors and lenses carefully placed in sequence. At the end of it lies the world’s fastest camera, capable of taking a photo at one billion frames per second.
It’s hard to imagine this whole setup burst from Hawker’s PhD — or DPhil, to use the term preferred by Oxford.
In 2007, Hawker was working on his masters thesis at the University of Oxford. Yiannis Ventikos, the professor overseeing his project, suggested the idea of doing a PhD.
Hawker was skeptical at first, in part because it didn’t gel with his plans. He was in a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend in Manchester, and his general plan was to move the 160 miles north after graduation and find a job. But when he heard out Yiannis’ proposal about a novel approach to fusion, he started to reconsider.
“You don’t get many chances in life to work on a problem like that,” Hawker says. “Truthfully, I got drawn into it because of the challenge and the opportunity to work on something completely new. It’s that ‘what’s beyond the edge of the map’ kind of draw that attracted me.”
His thesis focused on computational fluid dynamics, a field that rests between mechanical engineering and physics. In July 2011, Hawker and Ventikos co-founded the company. Hawker completed his PhD in 2012, then joined full-time as CEO and CTO.
As for the relationship? They ultimately married, and the two of them live in the local area.
Pisanello comes from a slightly unexpected background. He spent 14 years working in the Formula 1 World Championship, working for the final years as chief engineer for a number of teams. Pisanello ran the entire trackside team of around 60 people.
Sat behind a wooden desk on a quiet weekday morning, it’s not quite the white-knuckle ride he’s used to. Does he miss it?
“If it had to be a blanket answer, I’d say no,” Pisanello says over the phone ahead of the visit. “I miss the adrenaline for sure. You don’t realize, until you try, what it means to be qualifying, having to send the car out at the right time…what it means to be during the race and being the person that has to call for a pit stop when the race is at stake.”
In his day-to-day life, Pisanello has given up the split-second decisions that used to define his career.
“A technical director of mine used to say, ‘remember, at the track you can never make the car faster than it is, but you can definitely make it slower,’” he says, laughing.
But it’s perhaps emblematic of the draw for a pitch like First Light Fusion. While Pisanello could have continued the day-to-day thrill of the pit stop, he’s now on a bigger journey: one that he believes could leave sociologists rewriting the books.
“For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.
First Light Fusion: hope for the future
During its first four years of existence, First Light Fusion raised £2 million ($2.6 million). Nestled inside the university offices, the first steps were to prove the company’s simulations were accurate. In 2015, the company raised a further £23 million ($29.8 million) and spun out from the Oxford lab.
Today, the team is composed of 40 people covering 14 nationalities, including a technical team of 27. This latter team is composed of two-thirds scientists and one-third engineers.
By the end of this year, the team is aiming to show first fusion. That will demonstrate that the company’s method actually creates a fusion reaction. The team is aiming to demonstrate gain five years after that, where the amount of energy resulting from the reaction is more than what went in.
As with any scientific discoveries, it’s hard to know when the team will discover something new. First Light Fusion is facing decades of promises about fusion technology, and the company itself claimed in a February 2019 press release that it would demonstrate first fusion by mid-2019.
Even if First Light Fusion is successful, Hawker knows there’s more that can be done. Future technologies could reduce the amount of tritium from 100 grams to one gram, for example. Switching the steel used in the reactor could also eliminate all of the radioactive material produced by the process. This new steel has never been used in a plant before though, and Hawker wants to focus on the basics.
“I don’t want two things that are unproven,” Hawker says. “But you can make it go away completely, ultimately, with the right steel.”
For now, the focus is on showing fusion and reaching gain. From there, there’s a glimmer of hope that the project he’s dedicated the past decade of his life could make a difference in the world.
“I’m not sceptical about climate change at all,” Hawker says. “Our house is on fire. But I am very skeptical of the world’s will to tackle climate change, so my goal is very simple. My goal is to build the technology which beats unabated gas on price.”
Fusion could continue to remain “30 years from now” for the foreseeable future. But with the future of the planet at stake, it’s perhaps a risk worth taking.