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Fusion energy 'four times cheaper than nuclear'

New research published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society also indicates it is half the cost of onshore wind

|Oct 12|magazine8 min read

Inertial confinement fusion could deliver Levelised Cost Of Energy (LCOE) as low as $25/MWh compared with $50/MWh for onshore wind and $100/MWh for nuclear energy, according to new research published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Fusion energy could be the most cost-effective solution for clean baseload power, complementing the need to continue rolling out renewable energy technologies as fast as possible to achieve a zero carbon global energy system by 2050. 

Previous research had estimated inertial confinement fusion could deliver a LCOE of approximately $80/MWh, based on a cost and engineering analysis that assumed the need for a pulse or "shot" (i.e. firing a projectile at a target at massive speed to create the conditions required for fusion to take place) every five seconds. The research, authored by Dr. Nicholas Hawker, founder of First Light Fusion, identified new designs with higher fusion energy yield per shot, meaning fewer shots are required for the same amount of energy generated. 

The paper demonstrates how this change leads to a new optimum power plant design, working at lower frequency, with a pulse every 60 seconds, and can reach economic viability with a smaller power output of 150 MWe. The solution offers both lower cost and much reduced engineering risk due to the smaller plant size and low shot frequency.

First Light Fusion is currently working on a First Of A Kind (FOAK) power plant design based on this new research. This initial pilot plant will not have a LCOE at this level – First Light will provide further technical and cost updates as the pilot design plans progress.

Dr Nick Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, said: "We have always believed fusion energy is not just deliverable but has the potential to revolutionise energy. This new work shows how fusion can be cost competitive with all generation technologies."

He added the most exciting aspect is the lower frequency changes the options for the core technology. "While we continue our work to demonstrate fusion, we are accelerating plans for developing the engineering of this new design. Those plans are already well advanced with detailed engineering work scoped. Our ambition remains to be grid ready this decade."

Gianluca Pisanello, COO of First Light, said achieving a zero-carbon global energy system by 2050 is achievable but will require significant investment in both existing renewables and new clean energy technologies. "This new research is hugely encouraging because in many parts of the world, wind, solar and hydro power alone will not be able to meet projected energy demand."

Analysis conducted by system-change advisory and investment firm SYSTEMIQ on behalf of First Light in 2019 concurs, suggesting fusion will be essential if we are to meet the Paris Agreement commitments and that achieving a zero carbon global energy system by 2050 is possible with significant investment.

The same analysis also concluded that while the rapid and maximum deployment of renewables is key to achieving the 2050 target, in certain parts of the world – including the UK – wind and solar power alone will not be able to meet projected energy demand, opening up a market for clean baseload power to complement renewables. Global power demand is expected to double by 2040 and could increase fivefold by 2060 when new technologies enable the electrification of a wider range of applications.

The low LCOE identified by this new research is made possible by First Light's inertial confinement fusion approach which overcomes three potential "showstoppers" of other fusion technologies: managing the intense heat flux, preventing neutron damage to structural materials, and generating the required tritium fuel, which all add massive cost.

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