Pulsar-Fusion has already replaced sanctions-ridden Russia to produce Europe’s largest electric spacecraft engine. And last week, the Bletchley-based science-tech company received a grant from the UK Space Agency to help it achieve its ultimate ambition – to develop the world’s first hyperspeed fusion engine with enough power to propel a spacecraft at the edge of the solar system. by 2027.
The project is supported by the universities of Southampton and Cambridge and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Rotherham.
For the founder of Pulsar-Fusion, physicist Richard Dinan, the stakes could not be higher.
Not only would success mean the ability to explore Neptune or the moons of Jupiter, but it could finally solve the problems associated with using fusion as a sustainable energy source here on earth.
“We have already built and successfully tested the largest Hall effect thruster in Europe and we are very proud of it,” said Richard Dinan.
These ion-based thrusters are used by all Starlink satellites (owned by Elon Musk). Most are built in the United States, which heavily regulates them, and while Russia used to export them to Europe, because of the sanctions, that has stopped.”
The plan is to combine the HET with a new fusion engine that creates plasma hotter than the surface of the sun and is able to move at hyper speed.
“We need to build our own technology, rather than relying on the US, and this UK Space Agency grant to bring fission scientists to the table.”
Large, multi-billion dollar fusion experiments aimed at delivering abundant energy to the world are already underway, but are very complex and difficult to build.
“And even if it worked, it would be so expensive that it would only be used by the wealthiest countries in the world,” said chief operating officer Dr James Lambert.
“We believe the fusion industry has missed a trick in not realizing that fusion should be used for propulsion first – and that sets us apart.”
“Our reactor design would heat the gas to a plasma, at a very high temperature, and inject it aft and use it for propulsion.”
“The reactor type is simpler to make and that’s exciting because we could build one, see if it worked, and build another without spending tens of billions of dollars.”
“And, as it would also be used to provide energy, you still end up with a viable energy system that can then be applied to the earth.”
“It’s all about getting the right technology first.”
Britain has a proud heritage in nuclear science, which enabled it to contain its membership of both the European Atomic Energy Community (Eurotom) and the EUROfusion programs after Brexit.
In fact, EUROfusion’s largest and most successful fusion experiment to date, called Joint European Torus (Jet), is based at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy near Abington, Oxfordshire.
The drive to find an alternative source of energy has already resulted in fusion projects worth £1billion over the past decade, and the government-won Fusion Strategy 2020 includes further widening largest pool of potential partners.
“The access to the space technology exercise we have in this country, both fusion and fission, is phenomenal and I don’t think people here are aware of the leadership the UK currently holds in this sector,” said James Lambert.
“We have managed to take advantage of this and create the most economically productive of all British industries – at present the income per person is 50% above the average in this sector. And this is partly thanks to world-renowned educational institutions such as the University of Southampton. People are breaking down our doors to be here.
The government’s Fusion 2020 plan includes examining how the UK can best attract the world’s best fusion specialists in the face of increasing international competition.
But too many UK-based investments rely on short-term returns and lack the longer-term vision often found in Silicon Valley, Lambert said.
“Access to private investment is holding us back – that’s where the US has such an advantage, and that’s why we risk losing specialists,” he said.
“In Silicon Valley, investors talk to founders and support them, but the difference is that if it doesn’t work, they don’t abandon them.
“We have to reach this level of committed investment here, otherwise the scientists will follow the money and go elsewhere.
“The government is doing everything but it can never replace private investment.”