TCS Daily

Fusion Energy: Europe's New Holy Grail? (Part 1)

By Peter C. Glover - November 6, 2008 12:00 AM

A long-standing joke among physicists is that a breakthrough in pursuit of the holy grail of fusion energy is 'always just around the corner'. In October scientists in Europe formally launched the latest fusion energy project the High Power Laser Energy facility (HIPER). Due to be built and operational by 2020, HIPER represents phase 2 of Europe's twin-track approach; a phase that will involve constructing the world's largest laser, a laser the size of a football stadium.

But while HIPER's lead scientist believes a fusion energy breakthrough is just years away, some senior physicists are not only sceptical but question the whole need for fusion energy at all.

HIPER is a seven-year $1 billion project instigated by the European Commission that aims to create laser-based nuclear fusion using the same process that drives the sun. Europe's phase 1, the $14 billion ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), already under construction at Cadarache in France, is expected to be operational by 2016. ITER has the same aim as HIPER, but will utilize a non-laser, conventional superconducting magnetic compression process.

The football field sized HIPER project may be built in the UK.

HIPER will instead attempt to create nuclear fusion of light nuclei into helium. Essentially, it will squeeze together hydrogen atoms to enable the tapping of the energy produced, it is hoped, in a commercial process. In effect, what the Sun and stars do via high temperatures and pressure, lasers will attempt to replicate. The theory is that as the hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium, though some mass would be lost, a colossal amount of energy would be released. The trick is to get far more energy out of the process than is required to feed into it. And that's been the chief insurmountable problem for fusion scientists.

Before ITER or HIPER can do their key job of turning a lab experiment into a commercial enterprise, the 'proof of principle' of laser fusion has to be demonstrated. This 'proof' is currently being pursued via research with two large-scale lasers currently under construction at Laser Megajoule in Bourdeaux, south-east France and at the National Ignition Facility in California in the USA. The key objective of these two preliminary projects is to show how in a single experiment more energy can be extracted from the process than is required to initiate it. If that hurdle can be overcome, the role of HIPER and ITER will be to exploit the principle further by turning a single event into a continuous cycle making commercial power plants a realistic proposition.

In 2007, a British-led team of European scientists won EU science panel approval to build the prototype HIPER reactor, probably in the UK. HIPER Project Leader, Professor Mike Dunne of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, told the BBC, "We have two approaches because of the prize that is out there; fusion energy is the holy grail of energy sources." "It offers energy security because the fuel comes from seawater; it offers abundant supply, it's clean and it's safe. So the prize is huge."

Huge too are the challenges that lie ahead. The HIPER laser will be capable of firing more than a petawatt (a million billion watts) of energy at a two-millimeter fuel pellet held in place by a magnetic bottle. The laser barrage will compress the pellet to just a few microns that, researchers maintain, can generate the millions of degrees of heat needed for fusion to occur. Even those involved in the project have termed the prospects "daunting". Yet, even in the face of such enormous scientific uncertainties, Dunne remains bullish that HIPER can mimic nature's cosmic process, asserting, "We're just a couple of years away from seeing it in the lab."

Continued in Part 2...


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