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Oxford nuclear fusion revolution: the story of First Light Fusion

This is part 2 in Cherwell’s multi-part series of reported pieces on the personalities and stories behind the nuclear fusion revolution happening in Oxford. Part 1 can be read here.

With a snap of its oversized claw, the tiny pistol shrimp, which has an average body length of between 3 and 5 centimetres, fires off a savage shockwave of bubbles at a volume that rivals the clicks of a sperm whale, three-hundred and twenty times its size.  

As Nicholas Hawker – a then-DPhil candidate in Oxford’s Department of Engineering – researched these small but mighty creatures and their perplexing shockwaves, a wild idea sprung up. The pistol shrimp’s ability to create such a powerful shockwave, despite its small size, might mean that it is possible to utilise focused shockwaves to trigger the conditions for nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun.

As an energy source, nuclear fusion produces no carbon emissions and a very small amount of fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It could be the closest thing to a silver bullet in the global quest to transition away from fossil fuels. Yet, fusion remains prohibitively expensive and currently consumes more energy than it produces, making it commercially unviable for the near-term.

With his creative application of pistol shrimp research, Hawker may have found in the oceans an answer to a vexing problem that nuclear fusion scientists had searched for in outer space stars. Projectile fusion was an unexplored approach that could crack the code to make fusion viable within the next ten to thirty years. 

In April, First Light Fusion successfully combined atomic nuclei through projectile fusion, demonstrating an exciting proof-of-concept in the race for commercially viable fusion. Cherwell interviewed a representative from First Light Fusion to share its decade-long origin story, from the labs of the University of Oxford to the forefront of scientific breakthroughs today.

Before they launched the startup, Hawker and his DPhil supervisor, Professor Yiannis Ventikos (now at University College London), put out an advertisement for a fourth-year project student. At Oxford, engineers in the fourth year of their degree spend half a year working on an independent project as part of their transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. Hawker and Ventikos hoped to tap into the raw talent and ambition of these young scholars.

The pair put in a request for a student with a very high knowledge of C++ programming and incredibly niche proficiencies within engineering. The daunting descriptions of expectations and tasks sent shivers down the spines of engineering students anxious to pass their degree. No one applied.

Dr. Matthew Betney, who now runs the target design team at First Light Fusion, answered their call in 2010. But it took some persuading.

“I saw the advertisement, and I said to myself that this looks terrible and that I will not apply for this” Betney told Cherwell.

Sometime later, Betney found himself in a meeting with Dr. Ventikos, who reassured him that he need not worry about what was written on the advert and that he should take the plunge. “It wound up working out really well, and towards the end of that year, I got wind of the fact that Nick and Yiannis were considering spinning this task out into a fusion research startup,” said Betney. That startup is now First Light Fusion. 

“I decided I really wanted to be involved in this project, but I was not planning to join as an employee straight away,” he added, “It was a hyper risky startup with just two people and no one knew if it’d last 6 months, much less over 10 years.”  

Today, the conversation around fusion has certainly shifted from earlier uncertainty to greater optimism. “I am very positive about the future of fusion,” Betney told Cherwell.

“I know that our technology is good. We have a good program to get to where we want to be. Fusion technology all around the world is really progressing. A lot of other research companies and projects are getting really interesting results,” he added.

Instead of superheating reactants within a strong magnetic field, First Light Fusion aims to fire a salvo of small copper projectiles at hypersonic speed into a tiny capsule, thereby transferring energy from each shot into a coolant. They hope to demonstrate energy “gain,” wherein the process will generate more energy than it consumes, within the decade. 

And with so many of the fusion efforts centred in and around the University of Oxford, First Light Fusion is part of a burgeoning community of researchers and startups.  

“It is amazing that so many startups are being started here in Oxfordshire, such as Tokamak Energy right beside us, which also works on fusion,” said Betney.

“With all of this around us, I would say to Oxford students: take up exciting opportunities. If you want to work at the cutting edge of science and research, going into new areas, believe in yourself. These problems are really interesting!” Betney added.

Image credit: First Light Fusion

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