Chinese Scientists building Laser to Ignite Fusion

Chinese scientists could have found a cheaper way to duplicate an American laser experiment intended to ignite a fusion reaction.

In August 2021, US scientists used the world’s largest laser to generate 70% of the energy needed to ignite a fusion reaction. In detail, scientists fired 192 laser beams to heat a heat a BB-sized capsule of deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) to 100 million degrees Celsius on 8 August 2021.

National Ignition Facility (NIF) scientists think they briefly ignited a chain reaction they call plasma burning. Plasma burning is one of the first steps in igniting a reaction hot enough to trigger fusion.

Lasers could Achieve Sustainable Fusion

Scientists in Shanghai hope to replicate the NIF experiment by using lasers to ignite gold cones, The South China Morning Post reports. The scientists hope the gold cones will be a cheaper alternative to the deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) the NIF researchers use.

Researchers led by Zhang Zhe have tested their laser ignition method three times. The results suggest the method could work, The South China Morning Post notes.

“Our goal is to achieve sustainable fusion,” Zhang told The Morning Post. “the cones can be mass-produced and loaded as bullets in a machine that will rotate and fire like a Gatling gun.”

“The cost of gold will be extremely small – if not negligible – in the future operation of a power plant,” Zhang claims. “A small grain of gold can make thousands of cones.”

The Chinese government has given Zhang and his team $156 million (one billion yuan) to finance the experiments at the Shenguang II laser facility in Shanghai, The South China Morning Post claims. Zhang predicts large-scale laser facilities for fusion ignition could be built by 2026.

Powerful Lasers could ignite fusion

The Shenguang II experiments are an attempt to implement a laser fusion ignition scheme physicist Zhang Jie proposed in 1997.

The scheme was impractical back then because 1997 lasers were not powerful enough to trigger a fusion reaction. However, today’s lasers could be powerful enough to trigger fusion reactions.

Zhang Zhe’s team has run into some problems with laser ignition including bubbling of hydrogen gas. However, Zhang thinks his team can overcome those problems.

“We are making progress one step at a time,” Zhang claims. “By 2026, a new generation of large-scale laser facilities will be finished or near completion in China. They will lift the game to a whole new level.

Laser ignition is only the first step in fusion creation. After ignition, they will have to build a sustainable reactor that generates electricity.

There is no evidence Zhang and his team have done that work. Instead, I think their goal is to duplicate the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

Will we see Laser Fusion Startups?

However, it is possible Zhang Zhe could attract venture capital and form a company to commercialize his process. The Fusion Industry Association estimates private fusion companies had received $1.8 billion in venture capital funding by 20 October 2021.

Moreover, US fusion company Helion Energy claims to have raised $500 million from private investors. Helion also claims to have commitments for another $1.7 billion in funding.

Hence, there is a powerful incentive for Zhang Zhe to leave the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics and organize a fusion laser startup.