Industry partnerships for laser fusion

Feb. 10, 2022
A week ago, German startup Marvel Fusion announced development partnerships with Trumpf, Thales, and Siemens Energy.

Controlled nuclear fusion is a literally hot topic: When scientists create temperatures and pressures above the conditions in the core of the sun, they may force lightweight atoms to fuse. The difference between the masses of the atoms put in and the resulting new core is equal to the energy that can be converted into heat or even electric current. In times of climate change, this promises limitless energy supply with a minimal carbon footprint. It is inherently safe against Fukushima-like disasters and produces less nuclear waste than nuclear fission plants.

Research on fusion started long ago, but received increased attention in recent years. Today, the investments in fusion research count in billions. Most of that money goes into governmental and private efforts to confine the necessary hot plasma with magnetic fields. But laser-based fusion is catching up: Just recently, the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA, published scientifically approved results of what is seen as the first laser-ignited burning fusion plasma.

No wonder that the first startups try to surf on that wave. But now some bigger firms engage with laser fusion, too. On February 3rd, the Financial Times (FT) and the German Handelsblatt reported a development partnership between Trumpf, Thales, Siemens Energy, and the German startup Marvel Fusion. The FT quoted Peter Leibinger, CTO of Trumpf and member of the owner family, that his company was “pleased to jointly develop this important technology” because “fusion is an essential component of the energy sovereignty of Europe and Germany.”

Trumpf is well known for industrial laser systems. Thales develops, builds, and runs ultra-strong laser systems such as the ELI PW laser in Magurele, Romania. Public company Siemens Energy is listed within the DAX index of the 40 biggest German companies. Siemens Energy builds complete power plants based on gas or wind energy, for example.

On the same day, Marvel Fusion announced a successful financing round. They raised €35 million in its Series A, led by Earlybird with significant contributions from PRIMEPULSE, Tobi Lütke and Fiona McKean’s Thistledown Capital, Taavet Hinrikus and Sten Tamkivi (OÜ Notorius), Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Trust, and Heinz Dürr Invest GmbH, among others. Existing investors Hartmut Neven, Albert Wenger, and Chris Hitchen’s Possible Ventures also participated in the round. To date, Marvel Fusion has raised €60 million in total funds.

Pro and con of the proton-boron technology

Also one week ago, a longer article was published that describes several ideas of Marvel’s technology. Their fusion approach differs significantly from the one that is tested at the National Ignition Facility: Marvel promotes the proton-boron fusion reaction, where hydrogen and boron fuse and emit alpha radiation, which is ionized helium atoms. No or very few neutrons are emitted; therefore, this technology is assumed to create no nuclear waste. Unfortunately, the conditions for this so-called aneutronic fusion are much more difficult to achieve compared to the regular deuterium-tritium fusion. No burning proton-boron plasma has been reported yet. But the aneutronic concept has more attractive arguments: For example, it needs no tritium, a very limited resource that is to be bred in nuclear reactions itself. Boron is harmless and relatively cheap.

The news that big industry enters laser fusion business is very encouraging. Still, it will take a lot more money to establish the technology. A year ago, Marvel Fusion estimated that an experimental facility would cost 200 million to 300 million euros. Thats roughly the cost of a petawatt laser institute. A full laser-based fusion power plant would be 10X as expensive. However, given recent advances in laser fusion research and the growing demand for sustainable energy sources, it is likely that private and government organizations will soon invest more in all types of laser-based fusion research. A new chapter in the marvelous story of laser fusion has just begun.

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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