Ben Morris Business Technology Writer
At 1:30 am on Monday, December 5th, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, USA, lit the most powerful laser beam on Earth, in an experiment that caused a stir in the world of physics and beyond.
The laser beam hit an energy capsule the size of a black peppercorn, and the resulting temperatures and pressures triggered nuclear fusion – the same type of reaction that takes place inside the Sun.
The National Ignition Facility, which specializes in laser research, has conducted similar experiments before, 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 scientists, 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 tentative steps toward a clean energy source with the potential to revolutionize the world,” said Kim Bodell, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The potential for a successful nuclear fusion reactor is staggering. This reactor will need a small amount of fuel, will produce no greenhouse gas emissions, and 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 many private companies that hope to one day build a fusion reactor. A British private sector company expects 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 conducts experiments in which it launches a small aluminum disc at a speed of 20 kilometers per second towards a specially designed target that contains the fuel needed to cause the 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 much larger reactor than the current one, which it hopes will also break the magical barrier of nuclear fusion – generating more energy than is supplied.
First Light is competing with dozens of other companies pursuing nuclear fusion, but its founder is confident his company is heading 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 are going to move from an already very large and complex experiment to progressing towards commercial-scale fusion power generation.” Back in the United States, 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 reactor in operation by the early 2030s.
What is the future of aeronautics?
Imagine a plane taking off and landing like a helicopter, but without noise, high costs and polluting emissions. This is the vision of the companies that develop what they call eVTOL (vertical takeoff and landing electric vehicle).
Dozens of companies around the world are betting that there is a market for these planes, which will be designed to make short trips and accommodate few passengers.
These companies claim that eVTOLs have the potential to reduce the cost of flying because their electric motors are cheaper to operate and maintain than helicopter engines.
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 Vertical Aerospace, based in Bristol.
Its VX4 took off for the first time earlier this year. During the initial flight, the aircraft 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 transition from vertical takeoff to direct flight, flying at higher altitudes and faster speeds.
The aim is to obtain a license for the VX4 so that it can carry passengers in 2025.
Vertical Aerospace is competing with other companies developing electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (VTOL) technologies, which will also test its planes.
Germany-based Volocopter plans to conduct public test flights of its VoloCity aircraft next year. It hopes to license its device in 2024 and launch services in Singapore, Paris and Rome.
Also next year, Lilium intends to produce its first VTOL-powered aircraft. The Germany-based company has tested five prototypes of the plane since 2017.
Instead of using propellers like Vertical Aerospace and Volocopters, Lilliam uses 30 symmetrically positioned electric jet engines to help the plane transition from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight.
The biggest hurdle for these projects is obtaining licenses from the aeronautical authorities – a long and arduous process that can take years.
Have we said goodbye to the problem of lack of coverage?
Even in wealthy countries, there are areas where it is impossible for people to get strong signal coverage for their cell phones.
Add to that the billions of people in poorer countries and remote areas of the planet who don’t have signal coverage, and you have a huge untapped market.
AST SpaceMobile, a Texas-based company, aims to fill a gap in the mobile phone market.
The company, backed by big names in the mobile 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 an experimental satellite in low Earth orbit, but plans to launch five more satellites in 2023.
These satellites will be able to provide intermittent coverage, and the company plans to provide continuous coverage globally when it launches 100 satellites. around the Earth – 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 satellite dish.
AST expects the ease of getting coverage with just one phone and the reasonable price to 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 big market. That’s why we get so much support from operators.”