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US Department of Energy backs three laser fusion development 'hubs'

12 Dec 2023

Lawrence Livermore, Rochester, and Colorado teams share $42M award to push for inertial fusion energy.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded $42 million to three new laser fusion “hubs” that will attempt to develop the technology towards a viable future source of clean energy.

Led by researchers at Colorado State University (CSU), the University of Rochester, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the three teams will seek to build on the ground-breaking work at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), where fusion with energy gain, or “burn”, was first achieved almost exactly a year ago and since repeated three times.

Known collectively as “IFE-STAR” (short for Inertial Fusion Energy Science and Technology Accelerated Research), the program will aim to develop high-gain target designs, high-efficiency lasers at high repetition rates, IFE-relevant fusion target manufacturing, tracking, and engagement, alongside a supporting ecosystem and workforce.

The US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a DOE release: “Harnessing fusion energy is one of the greatest scientific and technological challenges of the 21st century.

“We now have the confidence that it’s not only possible, but probable, that fusion energy can be a reality. The scientists in these hubs will be the vanguard of game-changing and planet-saving breakthroughs.”

The efforts are in support of a presidential “Moonshot” goal of demonstrating a proof-of-concept for several different types of fusion power plants by 2032, while at the COP28 climate summit the US delegation launched an international strategy in support of fusion energy development.

Hub details
According to the DOE, the IFE-STAR program will see both the LLNL and CSU-led teams receive $16 million for a four-year term, while the Rochester effort gets $10 million.

Each of the hubs features a number of collaborating laboratories and commercial partners, alongside some international engagement: the Fraunhofer Institute of Laser Technology (ILT) and Trumpf are both part of the LLNL hub, while Munich-headquartered startup Marvel Fusion joins the CSU-coordinated effort.

Led by Tammy Ma, the IFE “STARFIRE” (Science and Technology Accelerated Research for Fusion Innovation and Reactor Engineering) hub at LLNL features participants from seven universities and four US national labs, along with Fraunhofer ILT, and will include development of diode-pumped laser sources.

Trumpf is one of several commercial partners involved, with others including the fusion-focused startups Xcimer Energy, Focused Energy Inc., and Longview Fusion Energy Systems - the latter having been founded by former NIF director Ed Moses.

“We are incredibly excited to bring together an excellent team to advance fusion energy, in synergy with our stewardship mission,” said Ma in an LLNL release, with ILT director Constantin Haefner adding:

“Germany, with its rich history in research and development of lasers, optics, production engineering, power plant technology, and more, is excellently positioned to develop key technologies for the realization of practical fusion power plants.”

CSU’s petawatt upgrade
Known as “RISE”, and featuring the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory as its co-leader, the CSU-headquartered effort will take shape under principal investigator Carmen Menoni.

“Experiments at CSU will leverage the power of its ALEPH laser, a high repetition rate, petawatt-class laser system to be upgraded to two petawatts,” CSU announced.

“We envision the hub to become a center of excellence for IFE science and technology and a magnet to attract talent and develop [the] workforce to support DOE’s mission in IFE,” said Menoni. “We are thrilled to partner with a world-class team of experts who are committed to making IFE a commercial reality.”

The establishment of RISE follows the announcement earlier this year that Marvel Fusion would be building a new $150 million laboratory with CSU. Targeted for completion in 2026, the new Fort Collins facility is expected to feature at least three laser systems, each with multi-petawatt peak power and a repetition rate of 10 Hz.

CSU adds that the RISE hub will combine innovative target concepts with new developments in excimer gas lasers and solid-state sources to open up novel IFE regimes.

Xcimer Energy, which says it can dramatically reduce the cost of the laser element of an IFE plant through the use of excimer sources, is a partner in all three hubs, while General Atomics is involved in both the RISE and STARFIRE efforts.

Rochester hub targets broadband source
Named “IFE-COLoR”, short for “Inertial Fusion Energy-Consortium on LPI (laser-plasma interaction) Research”, the Rochester hub will bring together experts from the renowned Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) with academic partners at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Aside from Xcimer, private sector involvement comes from the Seattle-based machine learning company Ergodic, which has expertise applying computational plasma physics modeling to laser fusion.

“The hub’s coordinated efforts and expertise will focus on determining the scientific and technological underpinnings for a broad-bandwidth, direct-drive IFE laser system - one that could pave the way to building the world’s first fusion power plant,” Rochester announced.

One of the specific challenges for developing an IFE system is efficiently coupling energy from the laser driver onto the fusion target, something that the IFE-COLoR hub will aim to address directly by reducing instabilities in the laser-generated plasma.

“These laser-plasma instabilities have plagued inertial confinement fusion drivers since the 1960s,” points out the team, which is led by principal investigator Dustin Froula. “The IFE-COLoR team’s approach builds on recent advancements in broadband laser technologies developed for short-pulse lasers to deliver a novel broadband long-pulse laser that is predicted to mitigate laser-plasma instabilities.

“Doing so successfully will enable more than 90 per cent of the laser energy to be coupled with the implosion, creating a practical and economic laser-driven IFE system.”

To demonstrate the science of this new approach, state-of-the-art lasers developed by LLE will be coupled into the new “Fourth Generation Laser for Ultrabroadband eXperiments” (FLUX) laboratory.

“From the initial experiments, scientists have wanted to use [broadband] lasers with lots of colors to mitigate laser-plasma instabilities,” pointed out Froula. “It has taken more than fifty years to develop the technologies and science that will enable experiments to demonstrate the laser-plasma science that will underpin a future direct-drive inertial fusion energy system.”

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