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U.S. DOE Awards Funding for Eight Fusion Science Companies

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Eight companies developing approaches to fusion energy will receive funding from the Energy Act of 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced this week. The department awarded $46 million in total, with the funding earmarked for each company’s pursuit of pilot plants to move its technology toward technical viability and commercialization.

Two companies developing laser-based approaches, Focused Energy and Xcimer Energy, were among those that received funding.

Focused Energy is an Austin, Texas-based company founded in 2021 as a spinout of the University of Darmstadt and National Energetics. Xcimer, also founded in 2021, is advancing an inertial confinement method based on a high-power krypton fluoride excimer laser architecture.

In a press release from Xcimer Energy following the DOE announcement, the Silicon Valley-based company said that its award totaled $9 million.

The funding stems from a DOE program unveiled last year, as authorized in the Energy Act of 2020. The Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program calls for up to $50 million to launch a public-private partnership initiative to support for-profit entities. The launch of the milestone-based program followed the White House Fusion Summit held in March 2022, as well as a DOE fusion workshop in June 2022. More recently, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) ignited an inertial confinement nuclear fusion reaction that produced a net energy return.

The program supports each awardee’s first 18 months of activity and encourages collaboration with national laboratories and universities. Funding for subsequent milestones toward full conceptual fusion pilot plant designs, for up to five years total, is contingent on the funded companies meeting early milestones and future annual appropriations.

Focused Energy’s solution to inertial confinement fusion combines direct-drive laser fuel compression with proton fast ignition. By combining high-energy pulsed lasers and ultrafast petawatt lasers, the company’s novel method relies on a mechanism in which some lasers compress the fusion fuel before the short-pulse, intense petawatt lasers spark the compressed fusion to ignite it. When successfully implemented, according to the company, this process will yield a burst of energy that is around 100× greater than the energy put in by the lasers, creating a large surplus of clean, climate-friendly energy for commercial use.


Focused Energy secured $15 million in seed funding in 2021 in a round led by Prime Movers Lab with additional investment from former Major League Baseball all-star and entrepreneur Alex Rodriguez. The company was founded by a group including University of Texas professor Todd Ditmire and Technical University Darmstadt professor Markus Roth.

Xcimer Energy said that its technology is enabled by developments initially introduced for missile defense, to dramatically reduce the cost of the laser system in an inertial confinement fusion concept. The company’s solution draws from work already performed at NIF.

“A low-cost laser enables economical production of laser energies of tens of megajoules, which allows direct scaling of the hotspot ignition mechanism proven at the NIF to larger, more reliable, higher-yield fuel capsules,” the company said.

“The higher energy output from larger capsules permits operation of a power plant at a repetition rate of under one shot per second, significantly reducing engineering risk relative to other IFE [inertial fusion energy] concepts. Together, these innovations allow the adoption of the well-studied HYLIFE chamber concept developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which allows a 30-year facility lifetime without first-wall replacement and the accompanying waste generation and material science R&D challenges.”

Xcimer said it plans to build on existing laser science developments — scaling NIF’s fusion breakeven achievement into commercially viable fusion gain and operation — and build a 10+-mJ-class laser to serve as the foundation of its technology.

Fusion approaches under development by the six additional awardees include magnetic confinement fusion using tokamaks, stellarators, and mirror machines, as well as a Z-pinch concept.

The DOE announcement comes in the same month that Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research published a memorandum on IFE. Also in May, the Fusion Industry Association released a report titled “The Fusion Industry Supply Chain: Opportunities and Challenges.” The survey of 26 private fusion companies and 34 supplier companies calculated that the current fusion supply chain was worth over $500 million in 2022, and that this figure is set to increase to over $7 billion by the time companies build their “first of a kind” power plants. When the fusion industry reaches maturity, the report said, the supply chain is predicted to be worth trillions of dollars.

Published: June 2023
Glossary
fusion
1. The combination of the effects of two or more stimuli in any given sense to form a single sensation. With respect to vision, the perception of continuous illumination formed by the rapid successive presentation of light flashes at a specified rate. 2. The transition of matter from solid to liquid form. 3. With respect to atomic or nuclear fusion, the combination of atomic nuclei, under extreme heat, to form a heavier nucleus.
nuclear fusion
In physics, nuclear fusion refers to the process in which two atomic nuclei come together to form a heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. This process powers the sun and other stars and is being researched as a potential clean and abundant energy source on Earth.
inertial confinement fusion
Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is a method of achieving nuclear fusion, a process where two atomic nuclei combine to release energy. In the case of inertial confinement fusion, the fusion reaction is initiated by compressing and heating a small target containing isotopes of hydrogen, such as deuterium and tritium. The goal is to create conditions similar to those at the core of stars, allowing for the fusion of light atomic nuclei. Here is a breakdown of the key components and steps...
laser fusion
Optical confinement of matter with high field energies intended to induce a stable nuclear fusion interaction.
excimer laser
An excimer laser is a type of ultraviolet laser that emits short pulses of light in the ultraviolet spectrum. The term excimer is derived from excited dimer, reflecting the nature of the gain medium used in these lasers. Excimer lasers are widely used in various industrial, medical, and scientific applications due to their ability to deliver high-energy, UV light in short pulses. Key features and characteristics of excimer lasers include: Excimer molecules: The gain medium of an excimer...
fusionnuclear fusioninertial confinement fusionLaserslaser fusionDepartment of EnergyBusinessfundingenergyLight SourcesAmericasUnited Statesexcimer laserXcimer EnergyFocused Energystartupsfusion startupsIndustry News

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