A British startup has set a new pressure record using the world’s strongest pulsed power machine, as it looks to forge a cheaper, faster path to fusion energy. 

First Light Fusion launched a projectile at over 20 kilometres per second (72,000 kph) into a piece of quartz crystal producing pressure upwards of 1.85 terapascals — almost four times the pressure found at Earth’s core.  

The startup achieved the feat using the Z Machine, a nuclear-era device located in Albuquerque, US. With a peak power of 80 trillion watts — more than the world’s entire electricity grid — it electromagnetically launches projectiles to higher velocities than any other facility in the world.  

The Z Machine was designed to test materials in conditions of extreme temperature and pressure, but since 1996 it has been used primarily as an inertial confinement fusion (ICF) research facility.   

First Light is pursuing a form of ICF called projectile fusion, which shoots something akin to a copper coin at tremendous speed into a target containing fusion fuel. This creates the extreme temperatures and pressures required to fuse atoms together, creating the same reaction that powers the Sun and stars. 

First Light has designed its target to amplify and direct the effects of the impact in a way that maximises pressure and heat. Beating the Z Machine’s pressure record proves that the target — known as an amplifier — does its job.

This animation shows a close up of the projectile hitting the target:

“Our access to the Z Machine enables us to test our unique amplifier technology at pressures we can’t access anywhere else in the world,” explained the company’s founder and CEO, Nick Hawker. 

The owners of the Z Machine, Sandia National Laboratories, only award 14 projectile fusion shots a year for companies looking to conduct experiments. First Light has been awarded three of those. 

“Testing at higher pressures is incredibly important as we seek to push the limits of what our amplifiers can do. We look forward to breaking the pressure record again later this year,” Hawker said.

Unlike conventional fusion designs — like the donut-shaped tokamak most other companies are pursuing — First Light’s reactors don’t rely on complex, expensive lasers or magnets. 

“This is a simpler, cheaper, more energy-efficient approach to achieving fusion with lower physics risk,” the company said. 

First Light successfully demonstrated fusion at its own site in Oxford in 2021, proving that its technology actually works. Now it needs to demonstrate energy gain, whereby more energy gets produced by the reaction than is put in.

Fuelled by €95mn in funding, the startup is currently building its own version of the Z Machine that will be capable of firing projectiles at 60 kilometres per second — 60 times faster than the average gunshot.

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