UK startup's nuclear fusion gun will fire a 1-billion-G projectile at a fusion fuel pellet

The new method for harnessing the power of the Sun is "cheaper than traditional fusion approaches."
Chris Young
The Big Friendly Gun.
The Big Friendly Gun.

First Light Fusion 

U.K.-based startup First Light Fusion is developing its prototype Big Friendly Gun (BFG) in a bid to achieve nuclear fusion without relying on lasers and powerful magnets.

The company recently performed a test-fire of its BFG prototype at its facility in Oxford, a Newsweek report explains. The company's test campaign could finally unlock the potential of nuclear fusion by using an alternative method to mimic the Sun's energy production method.

A pistol shrimp-inspired nuclear fusion method

The fusion of atomic nuclei is the same process our Sun uses to produce energy, and scientists have been trying to harness the method for decades. Companies like Bill Gates-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) are making great strides in tokamak nuclear fusion technology, and the method could, in theory, produce practically limitless energy with zero emissions.

However, news of new breakthroughs is always tempered by the fact that commercially viable nuclear fusion is some way off still as there are still some major hurdles to overcome. One of these obstacles is the use of incredibly powerful magnets to control the fiery plasma required for the nuclear fusion process. First Light Fusion has taken a different approach, and it's one that requires no magnets at all.

First Light Fusion's BFG is a massive £1.1 million ($1.27 million) steel gun that fires a high-velocity piston with 6.6 lbs of gunpowder. The piston compresses hydrogen gas in the gun before entering a cone segment that crushes the gas and forces it through a tiny hole. The piston then smashes through a metal seal, shooting a projectile at 4.3 miles (6.9 km) per second into a vacuum chamber, where it hits a falling nuclear fusion fuel pellet. This process, which is inspired by the pistol shrimp, momentarily produces the conditions required for nuclei to fuse together.

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Inertial fusion versus magnetic fusion

First Light Fusion calls its approach inertial fusion. The company claims it is closer to achieving net energy production — the production of more energy than is required to run the machinery required — on a commercial scale than tokamak reactor alternatives. In fact, in April, it announced that it had achieved fusion, stating that it achieved the breakthrough "faster and cheaper than traditional fusion approaches."

"Net energy gain has been demonstrated with inertial fusion, but the driver, instead of being a laser, was an underground weapons test," CEO Nick Hawker told Newsweek in an interview. "So there is that empirical proof there that you can get to high energy gain with inertial fusion." Hawker does note, however, that First Light Fusion's work wouldn't have been possible without the collective knowledge gained from the industry's work with tokamaks. Ultimately though, he believes inertial fusion "sidesteps" the challenges faced by companies developing tokamak reactors.

Comparing tokamak reactors to inertial fusion, Hawker added that "magnetic fusion is like a furnace. It's an always-on hot process because the particles are going around the donut. Whereas inertial fusion is more like an internal combustion engine. It's a pulsed process where you have a repetition rate and the energy per event multiplied by the frequency gives you the power."

The CEO believes First Light Fusion could be producing energy commercially at some point in the 2030s, which falls in line with the predictions of many tokamak reactor companies developing magnetic fusion technology. The company is currently developing its next machine, called M3, which will use an electrical current to more than double the projectile's speed to 12 miles (20 km) per second, reaching a force of 1 billion Gs.

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