27 Oct 2006
A European high-power laser fusion facility costing Euro 800 million is one of 35 large-scale research proposals that have been recommended to the European Commission for their science roadmap.
Last week, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), a committee of science policy officials from the EU's member states, published the The European Roadmap for Research Infrastructures, the result of a two-year study involving input from more than 1000 scientists.
The first of its kind, the report details opportunities for 35 new large-scale science facilities that the ESFRI believes have a "strong scientific case" for development over the next 20 years.
Among the proposals is HiPER (High Power laser Energy Research), a project put together by more than 50 senior scientists from the EU and Canada that will test the commercial feasibility of internal confinement fusion (ICF) as a source of energy. The other main fusion technique currently being investigated is magnetic confinement fusion, which will be investigated as part of the $10 bn ITER project that is currently being built in south-west France.
In ICF, a high-power laser beam is used to compress spherical capsules of the deuterium and tritium fuel required for fusion. As the capsules implode, their cores reach a temperature of 108 degC, resulting in the ignition of the fusion reaction. Demonstrations at the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, and at the LMJ (Laser Mégajoule) in France, scheduled for 2010-2012, are aiming prove that laser-driven ICF can achieve igniton.
One particular aim of the HiPER facility is to investigate "fast ignition", in which the compression and ignition stages are separated. This means that after the laser has compressed the fuel, the fuel ignition is "sparked" by a separate laser. The advantage of this approach is that it lowers the total amount of energy required to be delivered to the target and promises an order-of-magnitude reduction in the scale of the laser fusion facility -- making the process more feasible for civilian energy production.
However, HiPER's operations will not solely be devoted to laser fusion research. According to the ESFRI report: "This type of laser fusion facility will open up a wide range of applications in laboratory astrophysics, nuclear physics, atomic physics, plasma science and material studies under extreme conditions". The HiPER facility is envisioned to go online between 2015 and 2017.
Other optics-based proposals
• ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) is designed to investigate the laws of optics at the highest intensity levels. According to its advocates, at the heart of ELI would be an exawatt (1018 W) pulse laser delivering attosecond (10--18 s) pulses that are around a thousand times more powerful than the lasers produced at the LMJ in France or the NIF in the US. The facility will enable researchers to study light beyond the relativistic regime. The facility is projected to cost €150 million and should go online in 2013.
• The ELT - European Extremely Large Telescope - is designed to be part of the next generation of ground-based mirror telescopes. It promises to vastly enhance the light collection and spatial resolution by going from the present state-of-the-art 8-10 metres in mirror diameter to 30 metres in diameter. The project aims to advance knowledge of planets orbiting other stars, super-massive black holes and the nature and distribution of dark matter. Projected to cost €850 million, ELT is planned to go online in 2018.