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PriFUSIO foundation for laser fusion research formed in Germany

17 Apr 2024

Federal Ministry of Education & Research awards €18 million for project over next three years.

In what its instigators describe as a “boost for Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE) in Germany”, the PriFUSIO research project, announced this week, is intended to systematically develop key technologies for climate-neutral fusion power plants of the future.

The consortium, led by the Fraunhofer ILT in Aachen, brings together fusion start-ups, medium-sized companies, large corporations, Laser Zentrum Hannover, and Fraunhofer IOF.

PriFUSIO will focus on principles for targeted component development and explore practical photonic approaches for the commercial utilization of laser-driven IFE. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has allocated €18 million for the project over the next three years.

For decades, fusion research has pursued the goal of making energy from nuclear fusion available around the clock. In the Unites States, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the National Ignition Facility achieved a significant breakthrough: they succeeded in igniting a fusion plasma using high-energy lasers.

PriFUSIO network

For fusion power plants to become viable, numerous key technologies must still advance to maturity, according to the latest PriFUSIO announcement: “The German industry is well positioned for the development of these technologies, owing to its market-leading status in the laser and optical technology sector.”

“We want to build a fusion ecosystem of industry, start-ups and R&D that pools existing strengths and creates synergies between the various players,” said Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Federal Minister of Education and Research. “We must not miss this huge opportunity – especially when we consider our growth and prosperity.”

There are a number of challenges on the path to commercial use of IFE technology. These include the development of powerful, reliable and cost-effective laser sources and optics as well as automated solutions for fuel supply and the efficient use of the waste heat generated.

The PriFUSIO statement continued, “With its primary focus on fundamental plasma experiments rather than energy generation research, the U.S. National Ignition Facility fires only a few shots per day. For a power plant, a laser system is needed that can generate roughly the same amount of energy but can repetitively fire it more than ten times per second. To accomplish this goal, it is necessary to enhance their average power by at least five times five orders of magnitude (500,000 times) in comparison to the NIF laser system.”

PriFUSIO will primarily research fundamental questions on how to develop the next generation of high-power lasers suitable for power plants, lasers that compress the millimeter-sized fuel pellets and ignite fusion at temperatures of over 100 million degrees Celsius.

On the one hand, this means that laser beams must be generated and manipulated at high energy levels and with unprecedented power. On the other, resulting plasma must be controlled completely in order to harness the fusion energy released. The power required places extremely high demands on the materials, the engineering and the highly complex optical system.

Materials for high-energy lasers and optics

The consortium includes Focused Energy and Marvel Fusion, two German start-up companies working on different technological paths towards the commercial use of IFE technology.

They are formulating requirements for the necessary high-power lasers, from which the ILT and IOF are deriving the specific research and development required to implement these specifications. “The performance and efficiency of the high-power lasers depend directly on the properties of the optical components used,” said Hans-Dieter Hoffmann, head of Lasers and Optical Systems at the ILT

For this reason, not only are leading suppliers of optical glass and coating materials, Schott AG and the Heraeus Group, represented in the project, but also highly specialized medium-sized companies from the field of processing and coating optical components, Layertec and Laseroptik. Trumpf Laser is also contributing its expertise in the field of complex high-power lasers.

According to Hoffmann, one technical challenge in IFE power plants is the use of large-area optical elements whose optical properties must remain stable despite operating with high energies and high average power. Although the absorption of the laser energy – and therefore the heating of the optics – can be minimized through the material properties and coatings, heat must be dissipated efficiently.

“If we succeed in meeting these stringent requirements, PriFUSIO will also result in synergies for industrial lasers that go beyond the application in IFE technology,” said Hoffmann.

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