‘Machine 4’ at Culham in England will house the largest pulsed power driver in the world
Belgium-based engineering company Tractebel has signed an agreement with UK startup First Light Fusion to provide specialist engineering expertise for a facility that will be used to demonstrate net energy gain and “help make commercial fusion a reality”.
Tractebel will help develop and deliver the “Machine 4” (M4) facility at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) site in Culham, central England. Once operational the facility will house the largest pulsed power driver in the world, 75 metres in diameter – equivalent to the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall.
First Light will use M4 to demonstrate net energy gain – the process of getting more energy out of fusion than is required to create it.
In December 2022, the National Ignition Facility in the US became the first to demonstrate “gain”. It did this through inertial confinement fusion, the same method as First Light, but using a laser to power the experiment rather than a projectile. Scientists at NIF repeated the breakthrough in an experiment on 30 July.
Tractebel said its experts have acquired know-how in fusion by working on projects including the €20bn ($21.9bn) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in France.
Researchers for decades have attempted to recreate nuclear fusion – replicating the energy that powers the sun.
Nuclear fusion happens when two or more atoms are fused into one larger one, a process that generates a massive amount of energy as heat.
The approach, which gives rise to the heat and light of the sun and other stars, has been hailed as having huge potential as a sustainable, low-carbon energy source.
A ‘New Approach’ To Fusion
Founded in 2011, First Light works on a new approach to fusion called projectile fusion, which is a branch of inertial confinement fusion. It is a method for producing fusion energy which the company says is simpler, cheaper, and more energy efficient than other fusion technologies.
It works by launching a projectile into a target containing the fusion fuel. The projectile impacts a target which amplifies the energy of the projectile, imploding the fuel to the temperatures and densities needed to make it fuse.
First Light’s unique target technology, which delivers a much higher pressure to the fuel, is a key element of the approach.
Dr Nick Hawker, founder and chief executive officer of First Light Fusion, said the design and development of M4 is well underway and could be complete before the end of this decade.
Denis Dumont, chief global nuclear officer at Tractebel, said the company is committed to supporting the UK nuclear industry, fission and fusion, and helping meet the UK’s ambition to be net zero by 2050.
In January, First Light Fusion and the UKAEA signed an agreement for the design and construction of a new purpose-built facility to house M4.
At the time First Light Fusion said construction was anticipated to begin in 2024 with operations likely in 2027
The UK launched a fusion strategy in 2021 to drive long-term economic growth by developing technology and skills.
Researchers say fusion energy can provide a large-scale, low-carbon energy source. It has the potential to provide baseload power, complementing renewable and other low-carbon energy sources.
Computer-generated image of a nuclear power station based on First Light Fusion’s technology. Courtesy First Light Fusion.