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Startup using lasers to develop commercial-scale fusion power: 'This is proven science'

"It's just a matter of building a big enough laser, cheap enough laser, and efficient enough laser."

"It's just a matter of building a big enough laser, cheap enough laser, and efficient enough laser."

Photo Credit: National Ignition Facility

The quest for scalable nuclear fusion power has been ongoing for decades in labs around the world. So when Conner Galloway and Alexander Valys heard about a new kind of science coming out of California's National Ignition Facility (NIF) in 2021, they moved quickly. 

Within a year, the startup Xcimer Energy was founded in Denver to commercialize the technology and revolutionize our energy sector by providing clean, abundant nuclear power, all per a story from TechCrunch. 

"The type of inertial fusion we're pursuing has the best long-term economics," Galloway said in the story. 

The NIF's breakthrough uses lasers to create a "breakeven" reaction, meaning that more energy was created than was needed to make it. But this method is an expensive, multibillion-dollar operation, making scalability difficult, according to Xcimer. 

The company's method aims to lower the cost with efficiency and "proven science." The setup includes three main elements: the laser, the target, and the chamber. 

A powerful "Krypton Fluoride Laser" makes a high beam at a much lower cost. Similar lasers are already in use in the medical and industrial sectors. The laser ignites a hydrogen fuel capsule inside the chamber, creating a power-producing fusion reaction. Importantly, the chamber has a "self-contained liquid flow of lithium salt … to absorb fusion output and completely protect the first structural wall," per Xcimer's description. The salt, for reference, is molten. It's a crucial part of the technique. 

This process is intended to boost the laser's energy to 10 megajoules without breaking the bank, compared to the two megajoules of laser power used at greater expense during the NIF research. 

"This is proven science," Galloway said in the TechCrunch story. "It's just a matter of building a big enough laser, cheap enough laser, and efficient enough laser."

Nuclear fusion, which slams atoms together to form a new one, is considered by many energy experts to be game-changing science because massive amounts of power can theoretically be produced with little nuclear waste.

Fission, which collides atoms to split them, powers the nation's 54 nuclear plants, creating more than 2,200 tons of radioactive waste per year. Fission also comes with the risk of rare but catastrophic meltdowns

Other current fusion projects often involve large machines called tokamaks. An innovation from Seattle's Zap Energy possibly eliminates the need for magnets and lasers. 

It's all part of the mission to leverage sun-like power here on Earth. If one of the inventions proves scalable and cost-effective, it might eliminate the more than 37.4 billion tons of air pollution that the World Nuclear Association reports is made from burning dirty energy for electricity each year. The tech's perks go beyond energy production. Cutting air pollution can limit the amount of planet-warming fumes that NASA links to worsening extreme weather events, too. 

Xcimer's team has a 10-year plan to get a demonstration facility up and running. Helping to power the work is $109 million in investments and government funding, per TechCrunch. 

"That takes us through the demonstration of this entire prototype laser system and through our goals for further development of the technology and roadmap for the rest of the plant," Valys said in the story. 

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