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Laser fusion startups win US Department of Energy backing

01 Jun 2023

Xcimer Energy and Focused Energy among eight small companies sharing $46M to deliver pilot-scale fusion within a decade.

Two startup companies working on laser-driven approaches to fusion energy have won significant financial support in a round of funding just announced by the US Department of Energy (DOE).

California-based Xcimer Energy and the US-German company Focused Energy, which has a base in Texas, are among eight companies sharing $46 million that is intended to help deliver a pilot-scale demonstration of fusion energy by 2032.

“Within five to ten years, the eight awardees will resolve scientific and technological challenges to create designs for a fusion pilot plant that will help bring fusion to both technical and commercial viability,” announced the DOE.

The $46 million “milestone program” covers the first 18 months of activity, although projects may last up to five years in duration - with subsequent spending plans contingent on approvals made by US Congress.

KrF excimer approach
In its own announcement of the funding, Xcimer said that it was receiving $9 million under the scheme to develop its KrF excimer-laser-based fusion system.

“Laser inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is the only fusion approach that has reached scientific breakeven, achieved in December 2022 at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL),” pointed out the Redwood City firm.

“The Xcimer team will leverage this accomplishment and the significant progress made by the laser fusion community to advance inertial fusion energy (IFE).”

Its CEO and co-founder Conner Galloway added: “Xcimer’s innovations directly address the remaining challenges in deploying laser-driven IFE and enable the fastest and lowest-risk path to put fusion power on the grid.”

Xcimer, whose team includes collaborators at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics and LLNL, among others, has attracted seed funding from private backers including Prelude Ventures.

Its technological approach - based around the “HYLIFE” chamber concept developed at LLNL - is intended to dramatically reduce the cost of the laser system, the most expensive component of an IFE power plant.

“A low-cost laser enables economical production of laser energies of tens of megajoules, which allows direct scaling of the hotspot ignition mechanism proven at the NIF to larger, more reliable, higher-yield fuel capsules,” explains the firm.

“The higher energy output from larger capsules permits operation of a power plant at a repetition rate of under one shot per second, significantly reducing engineering risk relative to other IFE concepts.”

Colorado facility
In a virtual discussion (see below) following the DOE announcement hosted by the DOE's Office of Science director, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Xcimer’s VP of reactor and plant design Susana Reyes said that the company was planning to build its prototype laser facility in Colorado, and already engaging with local universities and schools over workforce requirements.

The 10 MJ-scale excimer system envisaged by the company is expected to deliver ten times the laser energy that NIF was capable of, at “orders of magnitude” lower cost. Excimer sources have been widely deployed in semiconductor lithography equipment, although a different approach is used in the latest extreme ultraviolet (EUV) systems.

Focused Energy, which was founded by a team including the University of Texas, Austin, professor Todd Ditmire and his Technical University Darmstadt counterpart Markus Roth, has previously raised $15 million from venture supporters including the former Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez.

In September 2021 the company said it was planning to build a high-repetition-rate laser test facility to define the layout for the construction of a future ignition facility by 2025, with a prototype power plant anticipated by around 2030.

The six other companies supported by the latest DOE funding, who are not pursuing laser-based approaches to fusion, are Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Princeton Stellarators, Realta Fusion, Tokamak Energy, Type One Energy Group, and Zap Energy.

Supply chain challenge
News of the DOE support comes two weeks after the Washington, DC, based Fusion Industry Association (FIA) said that annual supply-chain spending on fusion components and materials was expected by its members to balloon from $500 million in 2022 to $7 billion when the initial fusion power plants are built.

However, the FIA’s survey results also indicated that suppliers are reluctant to make the necessary investments at the moment, because building the capacity to meet future demand right now is deemed too risky without committed orders.

“The projected growth of the fusion industry creates a huge business opportunity for current and new suppliers,” said FIA’s CEO, Andrew Holland. “It is clear [that] more long-term certainty is needed - through a mix of finance, regulation, risk-sharing mechanisms, and more communication - so suppliers are prepared to scale ahead of industry need.

FIA members include both Xcimer Energy and Focused Energy, while the major laser provider Trumpf is an affiliate member.

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