It was December 2022…

The world was buzzing with excitement and awe around the release of OpenAI’s new chatbot – powered by the GPT-3.5 artificial intelligence (AI).

In just five days, “ChatGPT” acquired 1 million subscribers – a milestone that took Instagram 2.5 months to achieve. And 10 months for Facebook.

Few were aware that a scientific breakthrough even more remarkable took place that same month.


At the National Ignition Facility (NIF) – housed within the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) – nuclear fusion ignition was achieved in December 2022. 

And it wasn’t just any experiment. It was a first.

The ignition produced 3.15 megajoules of energy, while only requiring 2.05 megajoules of input.

Source: National Ignition Facility

Net energy output. In other words: Producing more energy than is required to maintain a nuclear fusion reactor. The holy grail of energy production. 

That’s the promise of nuclear fusion technology. 100% clean, limitless, and extremely cheap energy to power the planet.

And in December of 2022, it was no longer just a theory.

The technology works. Now it just needs to be commercialized. But in the case of the NIF, that’s a challenging problem to solve.

A Very Large, Extremely Precise Experiment

The National Ignition Facility is designed to employ an approach to nuclear fusion known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF) energy. 

The NIF uses 192 individual lasers focused on a target capsule the size of a pea. The capsule contains the “fuel” – hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. 

The whole facility takes up the area of about three football fields.

The nuclear plasma that the experiment created was only a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. It was about 10 times hotter than the sun and only lasted for a few billionths of a second.

Though very short-lived, it required an extraordinary level of precision engineering to achieve that. 

The lasers were configured to specifications down to five trillionths of a meter. The timing of the lasers was measured in billionths of a second. And the fuel capsule had to be a near-perfect circle that was a hundred times smoother than a mirror.

No one thing made this experiment a success. It was the fine-tuning of parameters and equipment to levels of precision that are difficult to comprehend. Without doing so, the reaction would have never been possible.

And then there was the power. 


Previous experiments required well below the 2-megajoule level. And the team had been systematically “turning up the dial” on the experiments. 

After all, fusion requires the recreation of conditions similar to our Sun here on Earth. No matter how tiny, it takes an immense amount of initial power to get the fusion reaction started.

Despite the complexities involved, the success at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) wasn’t a one-off event. The results have been reproducible. 

There have been five “ignitions” producing net energy outputs at the NIF since the first in December of 2022. The most recent being this February, which produced the largest energy output at 5.2 megajoules.

Naturally, the string of successful ignitions has led to discussions on how to commercialize this approach to nuclear fusion. The end goal? To develop an integrated power plant that could produce 24/7/365 baseload clean electricity.

Source: National Ignition Facility

Scientists at the NIF believe that their design, shown above, can produce 50-100 times more energy than is required as an input to the fusion reactions. 

This approach would require an integrated power plant to have a footprint similar to today’s large baseload power plants and can supply a major U.S. city with clean electricity.

But as remarkable as the achievements have been at the NIF, these have been large science experiments – proofs of concept.

The NIF’s approach is not dissimilar to the ITER project in Europe, which is building a massive Tokamak fusion reactor as a proof of concept for tens of billions of dollars. NIF’s approach costs a fraction of that, but it hasn’t been designed with commercialization in mind.

However, the shift in the nuclear fusion industry is palpable now. We last discussed this in The Bleeding Edge – Washington’s Shift Toward Nuclear.

The Focus on Commercialization

It’s no longer a question of, “Can we build nuclear fusion?” or, “Can we produce a net energy fusion reaction?”

The focus now is, “Can we produce commercially viable nuclear fusion reactors that can be manufactured and deployed at scale?”

The inertial confinement fusion (ICF) approach has had some early interest in the private sector. Most notable is General Atomics, a private energy and defense technology company owned by the Blue brothers.

Also worth mentioning is U.K.-based First Light Fusion, which is also working on the ICF approach to fusion. 

First Light has been around for a bit more than a decade and has raised almost $600 million to date. Its vision, shown below, is to design and build a power plant capable of producing about 500 megawatts of electricity, firing every 10 seconds, and costing less than $5 billion to build.

Source: First Light Fusion

I expected there would be a new entrant for the inertial confinement fusion approach after the success of the NIF in 2022. I had been tracking a tiny company founded that year called Xcimer… But not a lot was known, and it hasn’t raised enough capital to do anything material.

Until now.

Laser-Powered Nuclear Fusion Power Plants

Last month, Xcimer raised $100 million to pursue its new approach to inertial confinement fusion… one that it claims with not only produce more clean energy but is also much cheaper to build and operate. 

In fact, Xcimer believes that it can reduce the cost per joule of energy produced by a factor of more than 30 times compared to the NIF’s approach.

In other words, something that is economical and has the potential to be commercialized.

What’s unique about Xcimer’s approach to ICF is that the fusion reactions will happen in a flow of molten salt (shown in pink/purple below) as opposed to a traditional reactor chamber. The advantage of using molten salt to capture the energy produced by the fusion reaction is that it’s easy to carry out to a heat exchanger to power a turbine to produce clean energy, and it protects the reactor walls from damage from the fusion reactions.

Source: Xcimer

Protecting the reactor walls means far less maintenance. The reactor could potentially run for decades without needing to be replaced. And this would obviously reduce operational and capital costs for the power plant.

Xcimer is backed by some big names, specifically Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Emerson Collective, Lowercarbon Capital, and the Department of Energy, which gave the company its initial grant of $9 million to get the company off the ground.

There is clearly some potential. And now that Xcimer has the capital to build, it has become a very real project.

With the $100 million, Xcimer can now build its prototype, Phoenix, to demonstrate both the technology and the cost savings related to Xcimer’s approach to ICF.

Xcimer has a 10-year time frame to get to commercialization – what it believes will be the first ICF approach to nuclear fusion in a power plant.

It’s a worthy pursuit. After all, we really don’t know yet which approach to nuclear fusion will be the most economical. I’m happy to see Xcimer getting funded.

But in the meantime, we’re on much faster timelines with nuclear fusion tech companies employing different approaches to fusion already building their prototype plants. 

The most prominent of which is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is on track to complete and commission its magnetic confinement fusion reactor – SPARC – by the end of 2025.