What if I told you that I got to see first hand a really interesting nuclear fusion discovery that could impact our lives … today? Before you start dropping frantic comments, just hear me out.

If you’re like me, the word “fusion” makes your mind go straight towards the long quest for net positive electricity production. Just look at the news about nuclear fusion just from the past few years and there’s a huge amount of advances that have happened … but fusion power is still a long way off. But that’s not the only thing fusion is good for. In fact, fusion has the potential to improve lives today.

I “know” (just like I’m sure all of you do) that radiation plays an important role in medicine, like medical isotopes that are used for detecting and treating cancer, but I never knew how they were made. Then there’s the story of the complexities and challenges of producing them and getting them to the patient before their very short half-lives expire.

I had a chance to visit a new fusion startup that’s made a really interesting discovery in the world of fusion that could have a major impact on our lives, like in medicine, today. So put the jokes of fusion power always being 30 years away to the side. This is really cool … or should I say hot.

The whole reason I make these videos is to share my excitement and interest in technology and in what humanity is capable of when we put our collective minds to a very difficult problem. I’m not a scientist, so these videos are also me sharing my learning journey. I’ve had an opportunity to meet and learn from some incredible people trying to leave a dent in the universe. And my journey over to the UK to meet with the team from Astral Systems is a prime example of that. In fact, I’ve kind of dubbed my UK trip as my “UK nuclear tour.” This is the final video in the series, so be sure to check out my visits to the UK Atomic Energy Authority and First Light Fusion.

Astral Systems is doing something different from what you might expect. This isn’t about creating net positive electricity production. They’ve discovered what they’ve dubbed Multi-State fusion. In essence, it’s a combination of Inertial Electrostatic Confinement fusion and Lattice Confinement Fusion. And if you have no idea what any of that means, neither did I, so let’s get into it.

Just for some quick context, which is important for understanding what they’re doing, fusion is all about slamming two positively charged things together, like nuclei or protons, which reconfigures them into different nuclei and releases energy. The important thing to keep in mind is that two positively charged things don’t want to combine together. They actually repel each other. Think about taking two magnets and trying to push the matching north ends together. This is the Coulomb force, or electric force, that makes fusion a challenge, because we have to expend a lot of energy to push those nuclei fast enough to overcome that repulsive force. And on the other side, we have the incredibly strong nuclear force that’s holding the nucleus together.

It’s kind of like trying to roll a boulder up and over a hill. The hill is the Coulomb repulsion. Everyone is trying to find the most energy efficient way to roll the boulder up the front side of the hill to take advantage of the steep downhill on the other side. That’s when the boulder starts rolling down the other side as fast as it can. It’s all about finding the best way to reduce the amount of energy needed to roll that boulder, so we don’t have to climb as high or we can get a bigger running start. That’s really straining that analogy … a better one might be a roller coaster. The downhill side is the same as releasing the energy for fusion.

That’s where Astral is doing something interesting by combining two techniques together.

In a nutshell, Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion, or IEC, is using electric fields to confine and heat a plasma of hydrogen isotopes to the point where they fuse together, releasing energy.
The entire system is taking advantage of the Coulomb force by jolting the entire system with a massive negative charge, so that positively charged ions, protons, and nuclei are forced towards each other by the same Coulomb force. Essentially, it’s using the “opposites” attract of the negative charge and those positively charged ions to get things moving, and “likes” repel logic, of those positively charged ions, against itself to get the particles moving very fast. It’s using speed to get the boulder up and over the hill.

This is where Lattice Confinement Fusion (LCF) comes into the picture. In most reactor plans, researchers are only using one method, like the bigger running start to get up over the hill. If IEC is getting the boulder going fast, then LCF is all about smoothing the path … or lowering the height of the hill. LCF is a method of achieving nuclear fusion reactions by using a lattice of special, electron-dense metals to confine the fuel. LCF combines the principles of fission and magnetic confinement to achieve fusion reactions at low temperatures.

Even though the Coulomb repulsion of the nucleus is still strong, by putting the fusion material in the heavy metal lattice it’s fighting against a sea of negative charges making it slightly less effective. This lowers the hill, which makes it less difficult to get positively charged materials to the top of the hill.

That’s a lot to take in, but in short … Astral is combining two relatively successful but independent methodologies into one and seeing incredible synergies. Here’s how Talmon Firestone, the CEO and co-founder of Astral Systems, broke it down for me.

“We’re using a traditional plasma as almost like a spark plug that initiates fusion in solid materials as validated by NASA. So NASA calls this phenomenon lattice confinement fusion right? But we don’t use … we’re not building a lattice confinement fusion reactor because it’s not just one, it’s two states.”

“It’s a mixture of IEC and a mixture of Lattice Confinement. We call it Multi-State fusion because we’re producing fusion in a plasma … and in a solid material at the same time. And that’s what really drives the fusion performance up because we’re not increasing power input.”

“There’s no magnetic field entrapment that’s doing anything. It is simply doing a second layer of fusion simultaneously using the same power input, and that’s driving performance by orders of magnitude improvement.” -Talmon Firestone

“You’re getting more bang for your buck out of it.” -Matt Ferrell

“Absolutely.” -Talmon Firestone

This is where my brain was breaking a bit, because Astral is building off of previous discoveries in a very clever way … and my brain isn’t very clever. In Lattice Confinement, there’s a reaction happening in the metal. Basically, the crystalline layer of metal atoms in the surface of the chamber are being used to hold the smaller atoms of a fuel like deuterium. Doing this allows you to pack way more atoms of a given fuel into a tighter space than you’d get in a typical tokamak reactor. That higher concentration increases the odds of the deuterons hitting each other.

Tom Wallace-Smith, the co-founder of Astral Systems, is the person behind the discovery of Astral’s Multi-State fusion approach. He walked me through their test device.

“So this is a research reactor that we have. You see these numbers on the top is because something that I didn’t expect going into nuclear physics is how many times it’ll be undoing and redoing nuts and bolts. You have a different sequence, so you can maintain the proper gasket seal.”

“So you could open and close the chamber and you can replace components quite rapidly. Different cathodes, different added materials, different probes, different samples. We have a window down here so you can view the plasma. You can do spectroscopic measurements as well. We have two pressure gauges … valves. These are the pumps to get down to low vacuum. You can get down to as low as 10 times minus six Pascals and about 10,000 pascals atmospheric pressure. Just here, just so you can see as a demonstrator, we have deuterium getter bed, which is essentially used for hydrogen storage. You have a metal, which can sort of soak up hydrogen and store it in a hydro form at lower temperatures. And then if you heat it up, then you get a pressure of gas coming off that you can introduce to the chamber. This is needed so you don’t get lightning bolts. It’s called a ceramic feed through. So it stops short circuiting between the very high voltage so, at the moment we’ve got about 50 kilovolt power supply plugged in, which is used for this system which can go up to a hundred. These two are much larger for, as you can probably tell, and they go up to about 200 kilovolts and 7.2 kilowatts. And this system essentially was made in 2021. And it’s kind of like the workhorse. I dunno if you can see the small blemish on the front that’s from arcing events. That’s what happens when you put a large amount of power into these systems when you start to try and produce meaningful amounts of neutrons.” -Tom Wallace-Smith

Before I had that conversation with Tom and Talmon, they started up the machine to fire up the plasma using a very low power level.

And a little later in the afternoon, Dr. Mahmoud Bakr Arby from the University of Bristol stopped by to fire up the system at a higher power level. He was formerly the Chief Fusion Physicist at Kyoto University in Japan and an academic collaborator at Astral, and is a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol. Before we get into that though, I want to hit on why their discovery and machines are a potentially big deal for the medical community. It has more uses than just medicine (I’ll touch on that later), but that’s their initial focus.

Tom Scott has a fantastic video on his YouTube channel about the manufacturing of radioactive medical isotopes and how one location shoots them underground to the hospital at high speed. It’s necessary because the isotopes they’re using have a half-life of minutes, not hours. If you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out. One thing you’ll notice immediately when they show the facility and particle accelerators that are used is that they are massive.

Radioactive medical isotopes are typically made using particle accelerators, such as high-energy and high-power electron linear accelerators.1 2 These accelerators produce the isotopes by bombarding stable materials with high-energy particles, such as protons or neutrons. The isotopes are then separated from the target material and purified for use in medical applications.3 4 This process is important for producing isotopes used in medical imaging and cancer treatment, such as technetium-99m, which is used in over 80% of all nuclear medicine procedures. In that case, you’re looking at a half life of six hours. That’s not much time to get the treatment to the patient, which means these facilities need to be built close to hospitals. However, they’re so large and require such massive amounts of power that it’s not economical or practical to build them everywhere. Only key hospitals have access to these treatments, which limits the number of people that have easy access to it.

As you probably noticed with Astral’s test device, it’s tiny … like really tiny. They actually have an older model of an IEC device that Talmon’s previous company used to sell for industrial and research applications. In fact, a lot of the parts they’re using are from already existing devices that have a long track record. Their device is going to be capable of producing medical isotopes in a very, very small size and lower cost. This will bring isotope production to far more hospitals and locations around the world.

“Most of those are being produced at linear accelerators, but still with a two-hour or six-hour half life patients can only receive those diagnostic procedures of PET scans close to an accelerator. And accelerators are $10 – $100 million. To buy and run and they’re finicky. They gotta spin them up by hours, spin them down by hours. But our systems are on/off anytime you want. Earlier you saw it on, and we’ll have it on a video you see around, it’s just a few minutes of waiting for a warmup and go, and it goes off. And these are industrially designed.” -Talmon Firestone

And they’re moving fast to demonstrate what they’re capable of producing.

“We are looking to demonstrate small batch isotope production. You asked the question about which type. Lutetium 177 we want to go for, which is a really, really hot isotope for use. It was for … until now … it was only used for prostate cancer. But like within the last, or like recent, I don’t know exactly, but within, let’s say the last few months, it’s been approved for 23 different cancers. So the demand for Lutetium 177 is supposed to 10x or a 100x in the next decade. And we can demonstrate that in the next three to six months. At least demonstrate, you know, research, what’s called research doses of lower activity.” -Talmon Firestone

But how does this truly compare to what’s done today? Well, we’d be looking at comparing this to devices like cyclotrons (aka particle accelerators) and even nuclear reactors. We’re just going to take nuclear reactors off the list for now for obvious reasons. A hospital isn’t going to build out their own fission reactor (at least not yet). Cyclotrons used for medical radioisotope production can range in size from small-sized cyclotrons, at about 2 meters (6.5 feet) and a length of about 3 meters (10 feet), to larger ones that can produce higher beam currents, at about 4-5 meters (13-16 feet) and lengths of 10-15 meters (33-49 feet).5 The larger facilities can produce a wider range of isotopes, but they’re very large.

I was curious how many of these exist in the world and found that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) actually has a database featuring over 1,300 cyclotron facilities from 95 countries.6 That’s 1,300 facilities for 8 billion people around the world.

And when it comes to power, large facilities can use hundreds of kWs of power, if not MWs. It may not be a completely fair comparison at this point, but something like Astral’s setup is far less.

“How much do you need?” -Matt Ferrell

“Couple hundred kilowatts?” -Tom Wallace-Smith

“No, 18 kilowatts per, well that system’s 1.8 kilowatts. And it’s software controlled half that. The double stack is 7.5 kilowatts. But the high end systems that we built back in the day, and we’re gonna use the exact same power supplies, we’re 18 kilowatts each. So if we build five of those, it’s gonna be 90 kilowatts. And that’s, I don’t think we’ll ever build a facility with more than five heads.” -Talmon Firestone

“And then you’ve got, you’ve got cooling, which is roughly equivalent. So that doubles the pass. You kind double it, and then that’s it really.” -Tom Wallace-Smith

“I forgot about the cooling. Yeah.” -Talmon Firestone

You’re getting the benefits of less power to produce similar output in a small footprint, so you can probably see why it caught my interest. This kind of lives up to the tagline that shows up at the beginning of every one of my videos. “Exploring technology that impacts our lives.” And during my conversation with Tom and what gets him excited about the potential here … this is precisely why I traveled out to the UK on my own dime to visit them.

“For the project that we’re doing with the University of Bristol, we had something like 13 letters of support from different clinicians in nuclear medicine. Who said, wow, this would be amazing if we could have these in hospitals where we could actually open up the menu of medical radioisotopes that we could use for diagnosis and treatment of not only cancer, but cardiovascular diseases, detecting Alzheimer’s and dementia, thyroid cancer, all sorts of different types of tumors, metastases. So that really, you know, wakes me up in the morning and gets me outta bed. And to actually try and deploy this in, in a way that can impact people.” -Tom Wallace-Smith

And that leads me back to how deceptively simple their technology looked while operating.

“We have plasma, very stable plasma inside, so we can measure the neutron outputs from here. It’s almost now. Like one times into four, the second generated from the system. Plasma is very stable inside here. neutron output also is very stable.” -Dr. Mahmoud Bakr Arby

“So the, you can see some like dark, uh, color coming from the opening from the cathode here. This is definitely more electrons are going outside from the, the potential well to the bottom of the system, which will be very, very useful for our experiments for the lattice confinement.” -Dr. Mahmoud Bakr Arby

“Thing will limiting us is only the temperature of the anode itself, which will be very hot after like few minutes. But, uh, in the future we’ll make like a water jacket to cool down the surface of the anode, which will make, uh, the system can run for hours without any film, without any degradation for the input for the neutron output.” -Dr. Mahmoud Bakr Arby

Speaking of neutrons, which is key to creating medical isotopes, there’s other uses too. There’s also tritium production, which is a key ingredient for making the reactors seeking to create net positive energy work … and it’s incredibly rare. It’s more rare than deuterium, which is another key ingredient. ITER, the world’s largest tokamak reactor that’s being built right now, is expected to use 1 kg of tritium every year, but some estimates show we only have about 20 kg in supply.7 But as I pointed out, some forms of fusion produce tritium. For Astral Systems, their system running a deuterium + deuterium fuel mix for the reaction could be used for tritium production and research.

Now, I’m only scratching the surface of what I talked about with these guys. I spent an entire day with them, I have hours of footage and audio recordings, a huge backlog of research papers I pulled to prep for my trip and pulling this video together, and this is just a tiny tip of the iceberg. There’s other potential applications for this technology that I’ve barely touched on, like tritium breeding for fusion research, detecting explosive devices, space exploration, and more.

And even more exciting to me was that they’ve already achieved an order of magnitude improvement over the older IEC devices they’re repurposing for the test device. They have new cathode designs they’re getting ready to test that they’re hopeful will show another order of magnitude improvement. There’s still a lot of testing they have to do to see how far they can push their Multi-State fusion, but I’m definitely keeping tabs on how this progresses.

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