OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND-The European laser fusion project, HiPER (www.hiperlaser.org)—an acronym for high-power laser energy research facility—has taken a step nearer commercial reality with the announcement of European Commission (EC) approval in August. The budget is currently under negotiation both with the EC and with individual countries. The HiPER construction costs are estimated to be on the order of $1.1 billion dollars, with the full project costs running significantly higher.
First posited as early as the 1960s, laser compression of capsules to create the conditions for fusion was first demonstrated in the 1970s. Through inertial fusion the two heavier forms of hydrogen-deuterium and tritium-produce helium, a neutron, and a net release of energy. This process mimics the mechanism that powers the sun and all other stars. It is intrinsically clean and resource efficient, the fuel used derives from sea water, and has attracted much international research effort over the past 30 years. The latest generation of lasers—the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National laboratory (LLNL; Livermore, CA) and Laser MegaJoule (LMJ; Bordeaux, France)—promise a self-sustaining fusion reaction, one which releases more fusion energy from the capsule than is delivered by the laser system. Current plans predict this transformational event in the period from 2010 to 2012.
The EC backed HiPER will develop a “fast ignition” process which requires a smaller laser, and which should significantly relax the tolerances on both laser and capsule quality (see www.laserfocus world.com/articles/302477). Professor Mike Dunne, director of the HiPER project at the U.K.’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), likens this standard process to a diesel engine; fuel is steadily compressed to a point at which it ignites. By contrast, he likens fast ignition to a gas engine. In this scenario, the fuel does not need to be compressed as much, which releases the requirement to have ultra-precise laser profiles and near-perfectly shaped fuel pellets, both of which are likely to hinder routes to a commercial reactor.
HiPER project manager Anne-Marie Clarke, based at the Central Laser Facility in the U.K., explained progress to date: “We have been given approval under the EC’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). We are currently negotiating budgets and we expect to start the preparatory phase in April. During that phase, which will last between 3 and 5 years, we will sort out legal and management matters enabling us to reach a decision on the future construction of HiPER. We have partners from nine European nations and the involvement of scientists from five other nations including the U.S. New partners are welcome to join us at this stage.”