We mentioned Project Natick. Microsoft built a 40-foot pipe and loaded it with 12 racks with a total of 864 servers before sinking it into the North Sea near Scotland. Electricity comes from a nearby onshore wind farm. Microsoft reported that the failure rate of servers in its underwater data center was one-eighth that of its onshore control group. The company is continuing to work on Project Natick.
The search for clean energy is imperative, and while renewables like wave power, solar and wind power will become more versatile and useful, if there is a holy grail for clean energy, it might be fusion power.
Every fixed light in the night sky assures us that fusion is possible, however, no one has been able to sustain a fusion reaction here on Earth. Decades passed with little progress. It wasn’t until last year that several different companies and research groups began making remarkable leaps that seemed to indicate that commercial fusion energy might become possible sooner or later.
First Light Fusion is one of them. It recently finished building a device called the Big Gun. How big was it? It was about 72 feet long and weighed over 25 tons. What will it be used for? The company has a unique approach to fusion power generation that starts by launching a projectile at a fusion target at 20 times the speed of sound.
First Light’s approach, based on inertial confinement, seeks to subject the fusion fuel to extreme compression for a short period of time, and then use the inertia of the fuel itself to maintain these conditions long enough to trigger the fusion reaction.
Let’s start with the concept of fusion. What features could make fusion energy a reality? How do fusion reactors work? Based on your experience, and from your perspective, why do you think this is an important source of energy for the planet?
In a nutshell, fusion is a very small process that produces energy by fusing two similar atoms together to form a slightly heavier atom. In this process, a neutron is also produced, which carries a large amount of energy.
Now, by comparison, current nuclear energy uses the opposite concept. They start with a very heavy atom and split it. When you split a heavy atom, you also get energy. When you fuse very light atoms, you also get energy, and you actually get more energy. Now, this is a bit counterintuitive. But in such a short amount of time, I can’t really explain this. But that’s exactly how physics works: when you have heavy atoms, you get energy by splitting them; when you have light atoms, you get energy by fusing them. This process, the process of fusion, is something that happens at any time in stars, including, obviously, the sun. So the energy from the sun is actually fusion energy.
What makes fusion so attractive is that it has a set of very, very important benefits. First, it’s clean. It’s definitely clean energy. The amount of raw materials is practically unlimited; you only need water to make deuterium, and then you need lithium for the reactor to produce the other component needed for fuel, tritium.
Unlike current nukes, it also doesn’t have many other negatives. For example, in a fusion reactor, you cannot have a meltdown event like Fukushima or Chernobyl. So you can’t have a catastrophic event. Because in a fission reactor, in a nuclear reactor, in current nuclear reactors, you have to make a huge effort to keep the reaction from getting out of hand, not blowing up somehow. Whereas in a fusion reactor, you have to put in a huge effort to get the reaction to actually go on.
As soon as there is a disturbance, something that doesn’t work, the process stops automatically by its own physics. This is not a chain reaction that wants to continue and grow.
Another big difference from nuclear energy is that nuclear waste — a major problem with nuclear energy — is orders of magnitude smaller than fusion. Radioactive waste from fusion is ephemeral. We’re talking decades, not tens of thousands of years in the nuclear age. They usually have low or moderate levels of waste. So no high-level waste, which does happen in nuclear energy.
Finally, you cannot use products found in fusion reactors to create nuclear weapons. Again, unlike the current kernel. In this way, this makes fusion more attractive than nuclear energy, and obviously more attractive than polluting energy.
The method of fusion, two mainstream fusion methods, their main difference is how they contain the so-called plasma. In order to achieve fusion, you need extremely high temperatures. We talk on the order of 100 million degrees. Now obviously, containing that kind of matter at that temperature is a huge challenge. This is where the two different approaches differ.
One is called magnetic fusion, and basically they use a magnetic field or a magnetic bottle to contain this plasma. Our other approach is called inertial fusion. So what we’re doing in inertial fusion is basically we’re trying to make the process happen so fast — so that the fuel is also at extreme temperatures and extreme pressures — so fast that due to its own inertia, the plasma The body doesn’t have time to relax; it doesn’t have time to cool down before the fusion reaction actually happens.
This approach, and one of the mainstream approaches, best known, probably, for laboratory research, industrial fusion is the National Ignition Facility in California. This is the US National Laboratory. We use different methods for fusion studies of the same branch.
Our projectile-based approach has many advantages. They all stem from the fact that we can keep the expensive and complex parts of the plant away from where the reaction takes place. This brings many advantages in terms of maintenance and longevity of the plant.
So in terms of fusion, we have invested a lot in the research and development of this new energy. So in this case you can tell me more. So a lot of investment will drive the moral reality view or this technology to provide reliable electricity. So from your perspective, from your experience, how do you see the future of energy? Where do you see the challenges in bringing any fusion energy to the market?
Like I said, I joined in early 2016. Since then, it’s been a very, very exciting time to be in the field. There is growing interest from the perspective of private entities and public investment. Not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of governments actually pushing to develop a converged regulatory framework. So fusion is really coming. it is real. Governments talk about it, private investors talk about it. There are many researches on private enterprises in this field. So it’s very exciting.
The world’s search for clean energy is imperative
Why do we do this? We do it because we believe so – with First Light we have also commissioned a study to understand the energy market in 2040. We firmly believe that while we should develop and continue to deploy renewable energy solutions as quickly as possible, we know that if we don’t find a clean form of baseload energy, there will be some work day in and day out things, we will have a gap in how much energy we will provide using only renewables.
So, by 2040, the gap will be huge. Even if we all advocate aggressive deployment of renewable energy, we would still be able to meet about half of our projected electricity needs. So that’s why it’s critical to develop a clean baseload technology like Fusion. Like I said, governments and private investors really understand this now.