Energy Department Selects 3 Laser Fusion Research Hubs

The U.S. Department of Energy is initiating the formation of three research hubs with the objective of tapping into miniaturized laser-driven thermonuclear detonations for upcoming power plants. The three hubs will be situated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Colorado State University and the University of Rochester. A total of $42 million will be shared among the hubs over four years. Scott Hsu, the lead fusion coordinator at the Department of Energy, stated that the research effort will be concentrating on the requisite technologies for any inertial fusion system.

This method which involve merging two small hydrogen atoms into a heavier one produces energy. This fusion process powers the sun and other stars.The objective is to create a new energy source that does not produce carbon dioxide or long-lasting radioactive waste. Historically, most fusion energy research has focused on reactors using potent magnetic fields to retain super-hot hydrogen until the nuclei collide and merge. However, a successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence last year demonstrated a different approach by firing lasers at a single hydrogen pellet to generate a flash of fusion.

NIF was not constructed for fusion energy generation, it was primarily used for the preservation of U.S. nuclear weapons. However, a practical power plant would require the firing of laser pulses repeatedly. The hydrogen targets would need to be easy to make and cost-effective, and a power plant would need a steady supply of millions of pellets. The new research hubs aim to solve these challenges.

University of Rochester hub plans to test a new laser for energy efficiency, while the Colorado State hub will study various lasers and fuel target designs. The Livermore hub will explore what it would take to build an actual power plant using laser fusion.

The $42 million will share among the three hubs over four years. Dr. Ma said that these hubs are only the beginning of a U.S. program,” he said and further said, “The initial investments should help clarify which approaches are the most promising and lay out a comprehensive route to demonstrate a full-scale pilot plant.”

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