The recent report of a near-ignition fusion reaction at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) is bolstering the aspirations of companies hoping to bring to market laser-driven fusion energy systems.
Even before the NIF announcement, at least four startups around the world had attracted multimillion-dollar investments to their proposals for commercializing laser-driven fusion, also known as inertial fusion energy (IFE). Today the companies are either currently seeking new investments or will soon do so. The IFE hopefuls are years behind the half dozen or more private ventures in magnetic fusion—involving searing plasmas confined in reactors called tokamaks—that have built one or more experimental devices. So far, the IFE research has consisted of numerical simulations and laser experiments.
Three of the hopefuls base their optimism on the advent of short-pulse petawatt-scale lasers. Their founders believe these lasers’ high-intensity femtosecond- to picosecond-long pulses can let them leapfrog NIF performance to ignite fusion reactions that yield many multiples of the energy needed to spark them.
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