Inside what is called the Texas Petawatt Laser Amplifier Bay, where the energy of a laser pulse is amplified. The green lights are the pump lasers that amplify or boost the energy of the main laser.
Photo courtesy Todd Ditmire
As the effects of climate change become more evident, the promise of nuclear fusion – a virtually limitless source of carbon-free energy – is attracting a new wave of attention. The field drew nearly $5 billion in financingwith recent interest off the charts.
One of the most recent efforts to commercialize fusion comes from a startup Focused Energyfounded by a couple of physics professors who are experts in very high power lasers, Todd Ditmire and Markus Roth. The startup launched last summer and has a strong bench of veterans, including Prav Patelwho spent 23 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Now the startup has secured $15 million in seed funding from the venture capital firm Main Engines Laboratoryas well as Marc Lore (who sold e-commerce companies Diapers.com and Jet.com to Amazon and walmart respectively), technology investor Tony Florenceand former Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez.
Unlike nuclear fission, which today powers all commercial nuclear reactors around the world, fusion does not generate long-lasting nuclear waste. But it requires a sustained response to extremely high temperatures, and despite decades of effort, no one has yet figured out how to make it a commercially viable energy source.
There are two religions in the race to bring fusion to market: magnetic confinement fusion, which uses ultra-strong magnets and a round device called a tokamak, and inertial confinement energy, which typically uses lasers. Prime Movers Lab has invested in Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a Boston-based fusion company spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as its best bet for magnetic confinement fusion. According to partner Carly Anderson, Focused Energy is her top choice for the “small group” laser approach.
Prav Patel (L) and Todd Ditmire, two of Focused Energy’s lead scientists.
Photo courtesy of Focused Energy
Even so, attempting to contain the same source of energy that powers the sun will require a great deal of research and effort.
“Focused Energy capitalizes on more than 70 years of government fusion research,” Matthew Moynihana nuclear fusion advisor, told CNBC. “They have a credible team and a good plan, but they have big challenges ahead.”
Ditmire worked at Livermore for three years, where he worked on the first-ever ultra-powerful petawatt laser and met Roth. In 2000, Ditmire joined the University of Texas where he built the Texas Petawatt Laser. His power is difficult to conceptualize.
“The US power grid produces about half a trillion watts of electricity. So it’s half a terawatt,” Dimitre explained in a conversation in June. “A petawatt is 1,000,000 billion watts. So a petawatt laser has the same power as 2,000 times the power output of the US electrical grid.”
He continued, “You take all the power of sunlight falling on the state of Texas, it’s about 140 terawatts. So I would still say the petawatt is brighter than the Texas sun.”
Todd Ditmire, standing next to the optical amplifiers, the centerpiece of the Texas Petawatt laser.
Photo courtesy Todd Ditmire
In 2010, Ditmire started a business in Austin called National energy to design and build the kind of high-powered lasers he needed for his own research. “It turns out that in 2010 the only place you could get a custom power laser was in France,” Ditmire told CNBC.
At the top of the company, it had about 30 employees. In 2014, National Energetics won a $40 million contract to deliver a 10-petawatt laser system to the Czech Republic, where the company is in the final stages of completion. Once this project is complete, so will the company. Ditmire transfers all intellectual property from National Energetics to Focused Energy.
“I decided it was time to go and slay a bigger dragon,” Ditmire said. “And what could be a greater dragon than fusion energy?”
For six months, Ditmire worked with Marvel Fusionanother one startup working to commercialize fusion with lasers. Roth also worked at Marvel Fusion for a while. Marvel Fusion uses proton boron as a fuel source, which is an “interesting concept”, according to Ditmire, but his “real interest” was in working with laser fusion and using fuel made from isotopes of hydrogen. deuterium and tritium.
So Roth and Ditmire decided to start their own business.
In 2009, the Lawrence Livermore completed construction of the National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams point to a central chambercreating the kinds of temperatures and pressures that exist at the center of stars, planets, and an exploding nuclear weapon.
Instruments are seen inside the target chamber at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, U.S., Friday, May 29, 2009. The NIF will use 192 lasers aimed at a small target filled with hydrogen for the study of fusion reactions.
Tony Avelar | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Patel expected the team to reach a key fusion landmark, called ignition, within a few years. “I thought it would be quick. And that was almost 10 years ago. Then we spent the next 10 years getting the ignition on,” Patel told CNBC.
The lab finally reached ignition on August 8, 2021, meaning it had produced 1.3 megajoules of energy. Hurricane Omar A.the chief scientist of the lab’s inertial confinement fusion program told CNBC at the time he was “A Wright Brothers Moment” for the smelting industry.
This validation was a milestone for investors in the nascent industry.
“The NIF firing removed a major element of risk for Focused Energy’s approach,” Anderson told CNBC. “For Focused Energy to achieve cost-effective fusion, the team must develop inexpensive lasers and inexpensive fusion fuel. These are engineering challenges. been retired.”
After that milestone achievement, Patel was willing to accept Roth and Ditmire’s offer to join them – an offer he had previously turned down. Focused Energy will use both the type of lasers built by Ditmire and those that Patel has worked with for decades at Lawrence Livermore.
“We have conventional long-pulse lasers like at NIF to compress this fuel. And then we have these Petawatt lasers that Todd was talking about to produce this intense beam of protons,” Patel said. The goal is then to ignite the fuel with a spark. Ideally, that fuel continues to burn on its own — known as a “spread burn” — to fuse the rest of the fuel, Patel said.
“It’s a scheme that, potentially, with lasers two or three times smaller than NIF, you could potentially get 30 times more energy.”
Inside the vacuum chamber of the compressor, a central element of the
Photo courtesy Todd Ditmire
One of the advantages of using laser ignition fusion, as opposed to magnetic confinement fusion, according to Ditmire, is that it only uses tiny pellets of tritium, a mildly radioactive isotope.
The company is still in its infancy and faces significant challenges.
“They must be able to economically and reliably manufacture small pellets of fusion fuel and place them in a chamber for compression. Once fused, they must convert the resulting fusion energy into safe, economical and reliable electricity,” said Moynihan told CNBC. “All of this must be done within the merger legal framework drafted by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and those rules are still evolving.”
Focused Energy aims to prove its fusion process with an ignition facility by 2030. It will cost $3 billion to build. The $15 million raised so far will be spent on a laser system at the University of Texas at Austin and to build experimental facilities in Darmstadt, Germany.
Focused Energy’s new research and test facility is under construction in Darmstadt, Germany.
Photo courtesy of Focused Energy
Demonstration power plants in the 2030s are “not inconceivable”, Ditmire said. “And it’s not too late. It’s probably just in time. We probably don’t have time to procrastinate, but it’s just in time.”
Building a commercial smelting facility will cost Focused Energy about $5 billion. But the money is flowing in fusion right now. It took Ditmire four years to travel back and forth to Washington DC, lobbying on the Hill, to get $15 million to build the Texas Petawatt laser. “It took me four years of work. You know, we went out and raised $15 million with 4 Zoom calls,” for Focused Energy, Ditmire said. “The interest from investors was simply staggering.”
The fusion industry depends on continued investor interest in the “holy grail” of energy.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Ditmire said. “But times are changing, which means the rate at which scientific progress has happened is going to have to accelerate, and the place where that is going to happen is in the private sector.”
For Ditmire, it’s also personal. “It’s my reason for being in my career to make it happen before my career is over,” he told CNBC. “That’s it, baby. It is the dragon of Mordor.”
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