‘Star Wars’ lasers and cascades of molten salt: How Xcimer plans to harness the power of fusion

Conner Galloway and Alexander Valys have followed the development of nuclear fusion research since they were roommates at MIT some 20 years ago. For most of that time, it wasn’t the most exciting party: penetrate they were few and far between, and commercial fusion remained constantly on the horizon, always 20 years away from providing cheap, inexhaustible, pollution-free energy.

But then in August 2021, the two spotted some news suggesting that fusion power was finally within reach. Scientists working on a particular type of nuclear fusion at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) doubled their previous best.

Although it went largely unnoticed in the popular press, Galloway and Valys knew it marked a turning point. «That was one of the key moments. It’s like, okay, now’s the time,” Valys told TechCrunch.

Spurred into action, Galloway began perfecting his plans for what he would become Xcimer energystartup he founded in January 2022. Valys joined that April, and since then the two have been quietly working with their team to draw up plans for a fusion plant they say has the best chance of providing commercial-scale power.

«The kind of inertial fusion we’re aiming for has the best long-term economics,» Galloway said.

Xcimer follows what is known as inertial confinement fusion. It’s the same guy who uses NIF, which proved in December 2022 that controlled nuclear fusion can produce more energy than is needed to start the reaction. In inertial confinement, a laser is fired at a small pellet of fuel, compressing and heating it to the point where its deuterium and tritium atoms begin to fuse together, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process.

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But Xcimer pursued what can best be described as a fundamental redesign of the core technology.

It starts with a laser: Xcimer’s design is newer and promises to be more powerful. While the power of NIF’s system reaches around 2 megajoules, the startup aims for 10 megajoules for its commercial design. What’s more, Xcimer’s design should be significantly cheaper to build and operate. In principle, it is similar to the one used for years in the manufacture of semiconductors, and the way it focuses the laser beam is based on Conducted research as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, sometimes called Star Wars.

While many inertial confinement proposals suggest firing lasers at several fuel particles per second, Galloway said Xcimer plans to fire one every few seconds.

The interior of Xcimer’s reactor will also look a little different. Fusion explosions will occur inside a waterfall of molten salt instead of a steel-walled reactor. The flowing salt will absorb the energy of the reaction and help generate steam to drive the turbine. The hellish sounding waterfall also has the nice side benefit of protecting the reactor walls from damage, something that is a primary concern for other designs. «We don’t have to replace the first wall at all over the life of the plant,» Galloway said. «It can last 30 years with one chamber.»

Despite being only two years old, Xcimer has a ten-year deadline to get to a pilot plant that it says will prove its commercial-scale ambitions are more than theoretical.

For the next two years, the company builds a demonstration version of its laser system, which it calls Phoenix. While this demonstration won’t reach 10 megajoules, it will be similar enough to demonstrate cost savings, Valys said.

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To get through that phase, Xcimer has raised a $100 million Series A, the company told TechCrunch exclusively. The round was led by Hedosophia, with participation from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Emerson Collective, Gigascale Capital, Lowercarbon Capital, Prelude Ventures and Starlight Ventures. The startup also has $9 million milestone-based grant from the Ministry of Energy.

«It guides us through the demonstration of this entire prototype laser system and through our goals for further development of the technology and the plan for the rest of the facility,» Valys said. «It’s also more than enough for the initial phase of the DOE milestone program.»

Two friends are convinced that their ten-year term will work. «This is proven science,» Galloway said. «It’s just a matter of building a large enough laser, a cheap enough laser, and an efficient enough laser.»

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