The field is about to be transformed by the demonstration of fusion energy gain on the US National Ignition Facility – a multi-billion dollar laser project completed in 2009 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This facility has recently started a 3-year program to provide the final scientific proof that fusion can be controlled here on Earth – after 50 years of international effort.
Anticipating the success of this demonstration in the period 2010-2012, scientists from across the world are laying out the path forward to harness the fusion energy output on a commercial scale.
In Europe, this takes the form of a demonstration system known as HiPER - the High Power laser Energy Research facility (www.hiper.org). HiPER is a formal pan-European collaborative project between 26 institutions across 10 countries which seeks to establish proof-of-principle of commercial power production from laser driven inertial fusion. The facility proposal was accepted onto the European roadmap for large scale science infrastructures (ESFRI) in October 2006. The current phase of the project is funded jointly by European member states and the European Commission. It will run until April 2011 and conclude with the preparation of a business case for funding of the definition phase which will run for approximately 5 years prior to construction of the laser fusion facility.
Laser fusion operates conceptually like a car engine. Fuel is injected (in the form of millimeter sized pellets of solid hydrogen isotopes); the laser acts as a piston to compress and ignite the fuel; a large amount of energy is released and the waste products are exhausted. The cycle repeats 5 to 10 times a second to produce Gigawatt scale power.
The NIF facility will demonstrate that a single cycle can be achieved with high energy gain (i.e. the fusion energy output being significantly more than the laser energy used to initiate the process). HiPER is devoted to tackling the most significant issues associated with harnessing this process – in particular, optimised solutions for high repetition rate, high efficiency operation.
This paper will highlight recent progress in the key areas and explain how the path to viable laser fusion energy is moving forward in an international context.
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