Nuclear fusion generation has a future in Europe
The need to power up the world using a safe and clean method has prompted scientists to get to the bottom of things. Enter a British-led team of researchers who may have found the answer with the HiPER (High Power laser Energy Research facility) project. The EU is providing up to EUR 3 million in funding for the first part of the Preparatory Phase project — the majority of which will be co-funded by national funding agencies. The team will conduct research into laser-based nuclear fusion, which produces no carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas that has been warming Earth — and does not result in large stores of long-lived highly radioactive waste. Experts believe that commercial fusion could be economically beneficial for everyone.
Nuclear fusion is the process by which atomic particles link up and form a heavier nucleus, followed by the release of energy. Fusion, which uses sea water as its principal source of fuel, offers five key elements: ample fuel; energy security; clean energy; safe operation; and complementary solutions.
The next five years will be divided into a three year EU funded preparatory phase project which will start in April 2008 and a two year Definition phase (2011-2013).This is based on earlier research started in the US, which uses powerful lasers to produce the millions of degrees needed to kick-start the fusion reaction. For more than 40 years, researchers have tried diligently to find the right method for nuclear fusion generation. But the HiPER members noted that investment for this research has increased, thus facilitating the development of such projects in recent years.
HiPER targets the construction of the world's most powerful laser in an experimental reactor and will use the "Fast Ignition" technique, a different approach to laser-fusion than that currently used by other laser-fusion facilities. The research team is hopeful that fusion energy could become a commercial reality within the next 20 years.
Under the project, the researchers will fire a petawatt-pulsed laser at a fuel pellet two millimetres across. Because the barrage compresses the pellet to just a few microns, researchers are able to obtain the high temperatures needed to offset the reaction. For the team, the biggest challenge is to build a powerful enough laser that can fire rapidly enough.
'Fusion is basically nature's solution to the energy problem,' explained Professor Mike Dunne, project leader. 'It is how the Sun and the stars work. We are just a couple of years away from seeing it in the lab,' he added. 'This is not going to solve the immediate problem of greenhouse gases, but rather it is a solution that is being designed to provide an abundant, clean source of power to meet the long term demand.'
The HiPER project involves researchers from Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the UK, as well as a number of global institutions and industry.