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EU researchers kick-start new project on laser driven fusion

An EU-funded initiative to demonstrate the feasibility of laser-driven fusion as a major energy source for the future got underway on 6 October. Called HIPER ('High power laser for energy research'), the project brings together 26 partners from 10 countries. In addition to pa...

An EU-funded initiative to demonstrate the feasibility of laser-driven fusion as a major energy source for the future got underway on 6 October. Called HIPER ('High power laser for energy research'), the project brings together 26 partners from 10 countries. In addition to paving the way for the construction of a commercial laser fusion power plant, HIPER will also facilitate the investigation of some of the most extreme conditions found in the universe, such as those at the centre of the sun or in an exploding supernova. Inside the HIPER facility, temperatures will reach hundreds of millions of degrees, the pressure will be billions of atmospheres, and enormous electric and magnetic fields will be generated. 'This is a really exciting time for fusion,' said HIPER project coordinator Professor Mike Dunne of the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). 'The European community has defined a strategic way forward, centred on this new project. Twenty-six institutions from across 10 nations are working together to meet this challenge - combining the science of the extreme with one of the most compelling issues facing our society. Fusion is not a short-term fix, but it is designed to meet the long-term needs of our civilisation.' Fusion is the energy source of the sun and the stars. It occurs when deuterium and tritium (two different forms of hydrogen) are forced together to create a helium atom, a particle called a neutron, and a lot of energy. For this reaction to take place, the fuel must be heated to temperatures of millions of degrees centigrade. Normally, when material is heated, it expands, and as the atoms spread out, the odds of them bonding with each other become ever smaller. To ensure that the atoms stay close together, the fuel needs to be confined within a small space. One way of doing this is to enclose the plasma in a magnetic or electric field; this is the approach taken by the international ITER experiment, which is currently under construction in the south of France. The HIPER project takes an alternative route. In HIPER, lasers are used to compress a tiny pellet of deuterium-tritium fuel to a very high density; the atoms in the fuel are effectively forced closer together, making them more likely to react with one another. Then, the fuel is blasted with an extremely powerful laser that heats it up to the high temperatures required for fusion to occur. The preparatory phase of HIPER is scheduled to last until 2011, and an agreement on its construction should be reached around two years later. The project partners are hopeful that construction will begin shortly afterwards, and be completed by 2020. 'The benefits of fusion energy cannot be overstated in a global setting where climate change, pollution, energy security and the ever increasing demand for energy consumption represent the principal challenge facing humankind,' commented Professor Dunne. 'HIPER represents a very significant step on that journey.' HIPER is funded under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It is one of the infrastructures listed in the European roadmap for research infrastructures that was published by ESFRI (the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) in October 2006.