UK fusion startup breaks pressure record using giant ‘gun’ machine

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A British startup has set a new pressure record using the world’s strongest pulsed power machine, as it looks to forge a cheaper, faster path to fusion energy. 

First Light Fusion launched a projectile at over 20 kilometres per second (72,000 kph) into a piece of quartz crystal producing pressure upwards of 1.85 terapascals — almost four times the pressure found at Earth’s core.  

The startup achieved the feat using the Z Machine, a nuclear-era device located in Albuquerque, US. With a peak power of 80 trillion watts — more than the world’s entire electricity grid — it electromagnetically launches projectiles to higher velocities than any other facility in the world.  

The Z Machine was designed to test materials in conditions of extreme temperature and pressure, but since 1996 it has been used primarily as an inertial confinement fusion (ICF) research facility.   

First Light is pursuing a form of ICF called projectile fusion, which shoots something akin to a copper coin at tremendous speed into a target containing fusion fuel. This creates the extreme temperatures and pressures required to fuse atoms together, creating the same reaction that powers the Sun and stars. 

First Light has designed its target to amplify and direct the effects of the impact in a way that maximises pressure and heat. Beating the Z Machine’s pressure record proves that the target — known as an amplifier — does its job.

This animation shows a close up of the projectile hitting the target: