14 Sep 2016
François Hollande and Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis tour one of the giant laser facilities being built in eastern Europe.
The presidents of France and Romania have visited the Extreme Light Infrastructure Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) facility, soon to become the site of the world’s most powerful laser system.
Financed largely with European Regional Development Funding, ELI-NP is one of three giant sites at varying stages of completion, alongside ELI Beamlines near Prague in the Czech Republic, and ELI Attosecond (ALPS) close to Budapest, Hungary.
All three rely on state-of-the-art ultra-high-power laser technology, with the French defense firm Thales heavily involved in the development of the lasers upon which the three facilities are based.
Two 10 PW beams
François Hollande and his counterpart Klaus Iohannis saw plans for laser equipment being put in place at the National Research Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Magurele, near the Romanian capital Bucharest, during a two-day state visit to the country by the French president.
With an area of 33,000 m2 - around two-thirds of which will be dedicated to the high-power laser, a system for gamma ray production, and eight experiment halls - ELI-NP is set to host two 10 petawatt-power laser beams and the world’s brightest tunable gamma-ray source.
“This unique experimental combination will enable ELI-NP to tackle a wide range of research topics in fundamental physics, nuclear physics and astrophysics, and also applied research in materials science, management of nuclear materials and life sciences,” states the ELI delivery consortium, with operations currently slated to begin in 2018 or 2019.
Thales is providing the high-power laser that is fundamental to operations at ELI-NP. “This is more powerful than any other laser system to date, including the petawatt systems previously installed by Thales,” announced the company. “A special technical and scientific training program will also be provided through Thales University.”
During Hollande’s visit, images posted on social media by Thales appeared to show completed but largely empty halls that will eventually feature the key equipment.
Each of the two 10 PW laser arms, based on Thales’ “Apollon” design, will be able to deliver intensities of 1023 Watts/cm2 in bursts of ultrashort pulses. Back in 2013, Thales signed a €60 million deal to build the system.
Researchers from the CNRS and CEA central research facilities in France are also closely involved, and during their visit Hollande and Ioannis signed a memorandum of understanding for co-operation and training of scientists and engineers working on ELI-NP.
Power from nuclear waste?
Aside from providing a new and unique tool for studying fundamental physics and materials science, it is hoped that ELI-NP will lead to new methods for identifying and characterizing nuclear materials that could be applied in homeland security and also to manage nuclear waste.
“It may even turn out that a detailed in situ characterization of partially used reactor fuel elements may result in producing more usable energy in reactors for the same amount of radioactive waste,” states the ELI-NP web site.
The consortium also believes that new ways of producing radioactive isotopes will prove useful in medical applications, while it is hoped that one of the key scientific outcomes will be answering the mystery of how the heaviest elements in the periodic table were formed – something regarded as one of the great unanswered questions in modern physics.