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A German start-up is partnering with Colorado State University to build the first laser facility dedicated to commercial fusion energy research as optimism grows over the technology’s potential to deliver zero-carbon power.
The $150mn partnership between Munich-based Marvel Fusion and the US university aims to advance the development of a laser-based approach to producing commercially-viable power by fusing atoms.
Interest in the approach has increased since scientists at the US government-run National Ignition Facility used the world’s largest laser to achieve a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time in December. It repeated the breakthrough in July, achieving an even higher energy output, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.
Whereas the NIF was established primarily to simulate reactions in nuclear weapons, the Colorado facility will be the first site specifically designed to develop the technology needed for a laser-based fusion power station, chief executive Moritz von der Linden told the FT.
“There is momentum in fusion worldwide,” he said. “People realise that energy demand and climate change are pressing issues that will not be met by renewables only.”
Magnetic confinement, which remains the most widely studied approach to fusion, uses huge magnets to hold two hydrogen isotopes — usually deuterium and tritium — in place while they are heated to temperatures hotter than the sun.
Laser fusion is based on an alternative theory known as inertial confinement, in which the lasers are fired at a tiny capsule of the hydrogen fuel, triggering an implosion. The NIF, which was built between 1997 and 2009, uses 192 ageing lasers to heat the fuel to more than 3mn degrees Celsius.
The Colorado facility will initially have only three lasers but each laser will be more powerful than the equivalent at the NIF. And whereas the NIF can make a maximum of one shot a day, the Colorado system will be able to deliver 10 flashes per second.
“What we do with lasers today was unthinkable even five years ago,” von der Linden said.
In the NIF breakthrough in December, the reaction produced about 3.15 megajoules of energy, which was about 150 per cent of the 2.05MJ of energy in the lasers. Scientists estimate that a laser-based power station would require several fusion reactions a second, with each reaction generating between 30 and 100 times the energy in the lasers.
Most scientists therefore believe commercially viable fusion power is still decades away, but the potential is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.
Marvel has chosen to partner with Colorado State University rather than with an institution in Europe due to “speed”, von der Linden said. “For us it was now the fastest, most capital-efficient way for us to move on building this facility.”
Von der Linden in February told the FT it was a “disadvantage” to be in Germany as a fusion company owing to the higher levels of private capital and government support available in the US.
Speaking from Colorado on Monday, he said the funding gap remained. “Here in the US, investors have shown greater commitment and risk-appetite and greater support for this tech.”
There were, however, several European initiatives that pointed “in the right direction”, he added, citing the UK government’s support for the fusion industry around Oxford, France’s inclusion of fusion in its France 2030 programme and Germany’s recent publication of its fusion study.
“We see [the Colorado facility] as an important stepping stone to demonstrate the technology to then be able to build a power plant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this will be in the US too,” von der Linden said. “It could very well, maybe hopefully, be in Europe.”