CNL and First Light Fusion Partner to Explore Tritium Extraction Technologies
Canada’s national nuclear laboratory collaborates on new research project to design a tritium extraction system for First Light’s innovative fusion reactor
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology organization, is pleased to announce that it has entered into a collaboration agreement with First Light Fusion, a leading clean energy company based in the United Kingdom that is pursuing an innovative new form of fusion power. Funded through CNL’s Canadian Nuclear Research Initiative (CNRI), the scope of the project includes the preliminary design of a system capable of extracting tritium from the First Light reactor, as well as the development of tritium processing and storage options.
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Unlike a conventional nuclear reactor, which generates heat through fission (the splitting of atoms), fusion reactors generate electricity from the heat released when two atoms are fused together. Today, there is growing optimism that fusion could serve as a new source of carbon-free electricity for the world. One of the key features of deuterium tritium fueled fusion power plant designs is the ability to purposely produce tritium in the reactor, which is then used as reactor fuel, a process which requires tritium extraction, processing, storage, and management capabilities and systems, all key areas of expertise at CNL.
“CNL is thrilled to enter into this project with First Light Fusion, a company that shares our ambition and commitment to the pursuit of next-generation clean energy technologies,” commented Dr. Jeff Griffin, CNL’s Vice-President of Science & Technology. “If successfully deployed, fusion has the potential to serve as a transformative clean energy solution in the fight against climate change. That is a key objective within CNL’s mandate, and we will leverage our expertise in tritium-related research, combined with our dedicated, state-of-the-art Tritium Facility, to support First Light in the development of their innovative reactor design.”
“We are delighted to be working with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories on this critical project, as we look to a world powered by fusion energy,” said Dr. Nick Hawker, co-founder & CEO of First Light Fusion, the UK’s leading fusion energy company. “A First Light commercial power plant, based on our unique projectile approach, will avoid some of the biggest engineering barriers to that of other fusion approaches, including the production of tritium. Our design will allow tritium self-sufficiency, and CNL will support us with the initial design of a system capable of extracting tritium. Ultimately, the need for fusion is urgent, which is why we are working to solve fusion with the simplest machine possible.”
This plant design avoids the three biggest engineering challenges of fusion: preventing neutron damage, producing tritium, and managing extreme heat flux. Lithium is used to produce tritium, one of the two fusion fuels. Our design allows tritium self-sufficiency with pure lithium in the natural isotope balance. This is a major advantage as the only by-product is helium, and there is an established supply chain for normal lithium.
In April 2022, First Light announced it had achieved fusion in November 2021 – a world-first using their unique targets and the corresponding projectile technology.
The collaboration with First Light represents the third CNRI project where CNL’s expertise in tritium and hydrogen isotope separation is being leveraged to advanced nuclear technologies, demonstrating CNL’s growing momentum in this emerging clean energy space nationally and internationally. Among CNL’s responsibilities in the project is to choose two major tritium extraction candidate techniques on which system size and tritium inventory calculations, and assessments of safety and technological risks, will be performed. The tritium extraction system represents an essential part of tritium control in a fusion fuel cycle, and is a key factor in harvesting the tritium and limiting tritium permeation into the coolant. This is of fundamental significance for reactor licencing and safety, and demonstrates the fusion reactor self-sufficiency in terms of tritium production and consumption. CNL will also prepare recommendations for future laboratory work that could lead to the production of testing equipment used to validate the systems in a laboratory environment.
“CNL has a long and extensive history in the development of technologies and systems to safely manage tritium, given their presence in CANDU® reactors here in Canada,” commented Ian Castillo, Head of CNL’s Hydrogen & Tritium Technologies Directorate. “With the growing momentum and interest in fusion as a source of carbon-free electricity, we are increasingly leveraging these capabilities to help advance fusion reactor designs and technologies towards deployment. That is the objective of this project with First Light Fusion, and we are excited and eager to be part of it.”
Launched in 2019, the CNRI program was established by CNL to accelerate the deployment of new innovations, including small modular reactor (SMR) and advanced reactor (AR) designs, next-generation on-grid reactors and fusion technologies, by connecting reactor vendors with the facilities and expertise within Canada’s national nuclear laboratories. Among the many benefits of the program, participants are able to optimize resources, share technical knowledge, and gain access to CNL experts to help advance the commercialization of AR technologies. While the project with First Light was initiated during the third intake of the CNRI program, CNL recently launched the fourth intake, which has been expanded this year to accept applications from Canadian universities.
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