October 7, 2008

Europe Explores Large-Scale Alternative Energy Project

Europe is looking into an alternative fusion project that would seek abundant clean energy using a colossal laser the size of a football stadium.

The laser would produce energy by squeezing together atoms of hydrogen - a process very similar to the one that powers our Sun.

Europe is already working on the Iter fusion venture that seeks to produce the same outcome via magnetic compression.

The Hiper program is seen as a necessary complementary route.

"We have two approaches because of the prize that is out there; fusion energy is the holy grail of energy sources," said Hiper project leader Professor Mike Dunne.

"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 and we believe we need as many approaches as possible to make that prize a reality," he said.

However, a viable solution for making fusion happen has eluded scientists for 50 years.

The UK, the Czech Republic and France are the key players in the Hiper (High Power Laser Energy Research) study that has been started by the European Commission and involves the participation of 26 institutions from 10 countries.

The study hopes to establish the practicalities of building an experimental facility to demonstrate so-called Inertially Confined Fusion Energy.

The high-powered laser-pulse compresses a ball-bearing-sized pellet of "heavy" hydrogen - the atomic forms, or isotopes, known as deuterium and tritium - to achieve a density 30 times that of lead. A second pulse of light would then raise the temperature in the compressed pellet to more than 100 million Celsius.

The hydrogen nuclei in these conditions would fuse to form helium. One theory suggests a small amount of mass would be lost and a colossal amount of energy would be released.

Professor Dunne said to think of it as a car engine.

"First of all you inject the fuel and then in a car engine, a piston will compress the fuel. In our case, we use a big laser to compress our fusion fuel.

"Then, just like in a car engine, you have a spark plug that lights the fuel. We also use a spark but in our case, we use another laser - a very high-powered, very short-pulsed laser. You then exhaust the products and repeat the cycle again, and again, and again - just like in your car engine."

In the next few years, the "proof of principle" of laser fusion is anticipated based on two very large-scale lasers currently nearing completion - at the National Ignition Facility in California, US, and at Laser Megajoule in Bordeaux, France.

These facilities will hopefully show in single experimental events that more energy can be got out of the process than is required to initiate it.

Hiper's role will be to demonstrate the technical practicalities of exploiting the principle, of turning those single events into a continuous cycle that will make commercial power plants a reality.

The legal documentation was signed last week to start the current phase of Hiper. It is being funded with 13m euros of hard cash and approximately 50m euros of what is termed in-kind assistance - the provision of hardware and expertise from member parties.

If all goes well, the feasibility study will be followed by a period of prototyping, leading to the building of a demonstration unit towards the end of the next decade.

The timescales involved are not dissimilar to the other type of fusion now being pursued by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or Iter, under construction at Cadarache in France.

Iter initiates fusion in a super-heated volume of gas constrained by magnetic fields in a doughnut-shaped vessel.


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