Ben Morris Enterprise Technology Writer
At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, December 5, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, USA, ignited the most powerful laser beam on Earth in an experiment that caused quite a stir around the world of physics and other fields.
The laser beam targeted an energy capsule the size of a black peppercorn, and the resulting temperatures and pressures triggered nuclear fusion—the same type of reaction that occurs inside the Sun.
The National Ignition Facility, which specializes in laser research, had previously conducted similar experiments, but this time the energy generated by the reaction was greater than the power of the laser used to produce it.
It was a historic moment for nuclear fusion researchers, and although fusion reactors still have a long way to go before they can produce usable electricity, experience shows that it is possible.
“We have taken the first experimental steps toward a clean energy source that has the potential to revolutionize the world,” said Kim Bodell, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The potential for a successful nuclear fusion reactor is staggering. This reactor will need a small amount of fuel and will not produce greenhouse gas emissions, and it will emit a very small amount of nuclear waste, which is the waste that makes existing nuclear reactors undesirable.
The success of the NII experiment will motivate the many private companies hoping to one day build a fusion reactor. A British private sector company hopes to make significant progress in 2023.
First Light Fusion, based near Oxford, has an innovative way of creating the conditions for nuclear fusion.
The company is conducting experiments in which it sends a small disc of aluminum at a speed of 20 kilometers per second towards a specially designed target containing the fuel needed to cause fusion.
Once the collision occurs, the target fragments and creates massive pressure waves that can trigger a fusion reaction.
Earlier this year, in what was considered a very significant moment for First Light, the company announced that it had achieved nuclear fusion using this method.
In 2023, the company’s team will begin work on “Machine 4,” a reactor much larger than its current reactor that it hopes will also break the magic barrier of nuclear fusion — generating more energy than it delivers.
First Light is racing against dozens of other companies pursuing nuclear fusion, but its founder is convinced his company is headed in the right direction.
“I think 2023 will be the year we make a big strategic shift,” says Nick Hooker, founder of First Light Fusion.
“We want to move from an already very large and complex experiment to moving towards commercial-scale fusion power generation.” Back in the US, another big announcement in the world of nuclear fusion is expected in early 2023.
The US government will announce the name of the private company that will receive $50 million in funding to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor.
The goal is for the country to have a functioning reactor in the early 2030s.
What is the future of aeronautics?
Imagine a plane that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but without the noise, high costs and polluting emissions. That’s the vision of companies developing what they call an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle).
Dozens of companies around the world are betting there is a market for these planes, which will be designed to make short trips and hold a handful of passengers.
These companies claim that eVTOLs have the potential to lower flight costs because their electric motors are cheaper to operate and maintain than helicopter motors.
In addition, these companies add that these planes are quieter and do not emit polluting emissions.
One company hoping to become a player in these industries is Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace.
Its VX4 first started earlier this year. During the first flight, the plane was only anchored to the ground and in the air for 10 minutes.
But real progress will come in 2023 with a series of test flights. The aircraft will go from vertical takeoff to forward flight, flying at higher altitudes and faster speeds.
The goal is to get a license for the VX4 so that it can transport passengers in 2025.
Vertical Aerospace is racing with other companies developing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) electric vehicle technologies to also test their aircraft.
Germany-based Volocopter plans to conduct public test flights of its VoloCity aircraft next year. She hopes to license her device in 2024 and then launch services in Singapore, Paris and Rome.
Also next year, Lilium intends to produce its first VTOL powered aircraft. The German-based company has tested five prototypes of the aircraft since 2017.
Instead of using propellers like Vertical Aerospace and Volocopters, Lilliam uses 30 symmetrically placed electric jet engines to help the aircraft transition from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight.
The biggest hurdle for these projects is getting permits from aviation authorities – a long and arduous process that can take years.
Have we said goodbye to the problem of lack of coverage?
Even in rich countries there are areas where it is impossible for people to get a strong coverage signal for their mobile phones.
Add to that the billions of people in poorer countries and remote areas of the planet who have no signal coverage, and you have a huge untapped market.
AST SpaceMobile, a Texas-based company, intends to fill a gap in the mobile phone market.
The company, which is backed by big names in the mobile phone industry – including AT&T and Vodafone – is developing technology that allows a mobile phone to connect directly to a satellite to make calls or use data at 5G speeds.
The company currently has one experimental satellite in low Earth orbit, but plans to launch five more satellites by 2023.
These satellites will be capable of providing intermittent coverage, and the company plans to provide continuous coverage globally when it launches 100 satellites. Around the world – possibly in 2024.
AST will not sell its services directly to customers, but is working with mobile operators to offer its satellite coverage as an additional option.
That will be a challenge for Starlink, the satellite broadband Internet company founded by Elon Musk. This service requires a small dish.
AST hopes the ease of picking up coverage with just one phone and the reasonable price will be a big draw.
“Coverage gaps are a reality and they are a problem,” says Scott Wisniewski, one of the company’s directors.
“So it’s a very attractive solution and a very large market. That’s why we’ve had a lot of carrier support.”