First Light Fusion and IDOM look to produce cancer-treating medical isotopes from inertial fusion technology

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Photo: First Light Fusion

First Light Fusion is working with Spanish engineering firm IDOM UK Nuclear Services to identify potential pharmaceutical applications of its unique projectile fusion reactor process.

First Light is pursuing a novel method of inertial confinement fusion, the same method with which the National Ignition Facility (NIF) demonstrated energy gain from fusion late last year. The First Light approach uses a launched projectile instead of lasers to power the experiment, with the core physics being identical to the NIF. First Light’s form of inertial fusion may translate to a simpler, lower-cost approach with an easier pathway to a power plant. First Light’s technique creates the extreme temperatures and pressures required to achieve fusion by compressing a target containing a mixture of hydrogen isotopes as fuel, using a projectile travelling at a tremendous speed.

First Light has been working with IDOM on the design of its fusion reactor chamber, as part of its plans to build a pilot fusion energy power plant, based on its unique projectile technology.

This new project looking into medical isotopes production represents an additional revenue opportunity for First Light. Four fifths of the energy released by fusion is in the form of high-energy neutrons. Capturing the neutrons is essential for power production from fusion and safely managing the extreme fluxes inside the reaction vessel is a key advantage of First Light’s approach. The neutrons are also used to produce tritium through a reaction with lithium. This project adds a third aspect, where the neutrons are used to produce radionuclides for pharmaceutical applications.

Further subsequent research found that the current reactor design can safely generate a series of different radionuclides matching the production of other nuclear reactors like HFR in Petten, OPAL in Australia, or the different cyclotron facilities.

Photo: First Light Fusion

Compared to other fusion approaches, First Light’s flexible reactor design allows for the generation of many types of radionuclides at the same time and easy extraction of the target materials. This comes with little to no compromise on the ability to produce tritium or to extract heat and produce electricity.

Medical isotope market worth $11 billion by 2027

These medical isotopes, which are used to diagnose and treat health conditions such as heart disease and cancer, provide a considerable, though as yet unconfirmed, new market opportunity for First Light. According to independent studies, the medical isotope market will be worth $11 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 9%.

The demand for isotopes is growing significantly as they become increasingly important in the diagnosis and treatment of serious illnesses including cancer, yet isotopes production, as well as a limited shelf like making stockpiling of isotopes impossible, has resulted in massive supply-side constraints.

According to an estimate by the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNMMI), technetium-99m (Tc-99m), is utilized in approximately 50,000 medical procedures per day in the US alone.

As a result, First Light’s simpler, lower-cost, and faster approach to fusion, can help to solve the climate crisis and can contribute to nuclear medicine.

Nick Hawker, co-founder and CEO of First Light Fusion, said: “This is an incredible and unplanned development for our projectile fusion technology. Our focus remains very much on building Machine 4, our gain demonstrator, while developing a first of a kind fusion reactor. But when we identified the potential not only to produce, but also harvest these much-needed medical isotopes which are having an increasing impact on the diagnosis and treatment of such serious illnesses as cancer and heart disease, it was incumbent on us to explore the opportunity. Importantly this can be realised with no compromise to the reactor’s ability to produce electricity, it is a purely additive opportunity. Our early research working with IDOM has produced overwhelming positive results and we look forward to building on these findings into our continued plant development plans.”

Jim Cornall is editor of Deeptech Digest and publisher at Ayr Coastal Media. He is an award-winning writer, editor, photographer, broadcaster, designer and author. Contact Jim here.