Engineers Make Fusion Breakthrough by Shooting Projectile at 14,500 MPH

Engineers in England have achieved nuclear fusion by firing a giant gun at a fuel sample.

Researchers at First Light Fusion designed the method to be as simple as possible, and a viable alternative to the donut-shaped reactors called Tokamaks that are currently at the forefront of fusion technology.

First Light Fusion's approach to nuclear fusion energy is a type known as inertial fusion, in which a fuel pellet is compressed and heated so fast that particles fuse together in the few nanoseconds before the fuel blows apart.

Usually, inertial fusion is achieved by focusing an intense laser beam or particle beam at the pellet.

However, the company is trying a different approach by firing a projectile at it at around 14,500 miles per hour, temporarily producing pressure equivalent to 100 million times that of Earth's atmosphere, higher than the pressure at the center of the planet Jupiter.

First Light Fusion reaction
A screenshot from a computer animation of First Light Fusion's reactor concept, showing a fuel pellet being crushed by a projectile fired from the left. First Light Fusion hope the method could become a commercially viable way of producing electricity from fusion. First Light Fusion/YouTube

In a power plant, the fuel pellet would be dropped into the reactor from above and the projectile would then be fired straight after it.

This allows for just one entrance hole and the use of liquids that help protect the reaction chamber from the huge energy release—an engineering hurdle that other fusion approaches have to overcome.

Lithium, flowing inside the reaction chamber, is then heated up by the energy released prompted by the fusion reaction. This heat is transferred to water, which turns into steam, which turns a turbine to produce electricity.

The whole process would then be repeated every 30 seconds, with each reaction producing enough energy to power an average U.K. home for over two years.

On April 5 2022, the company announced it had achieved fusion with this method and believes it offers the fastest and cheapest route to commercial fusion power.

It is now planning to carry out another experiment in which it produces more energy out as a result of the reaction than it will use to produce the reaction—another huge fusion hurdle.

The company is also planning to develop a pilot power plant producing around 150 MW of electricity in the 2030s.

"If we can get the core physics to work, which I think we can, it potentially has a much faster trajectory to a power plant," Nick Hawker, founder of First Light Fusion, told The Times newspaper regarding the projectile approach. "The engineering is much simpler. The physics is simpler."

First Light Fusion is based is Oxford, not far from the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority's Joint European Torus (JET) facility which, with a completely different approach, produced a record-breaking 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy earlier this year.

The JET facility makes use of a tokamak reactor which heats gas until it turns into a plasma and uses large, very powerful magnets to suspend this plasma in a circle.