Cornell University’s Laboratory of Plasma Studies has joined the newly established Inertial Fusion Science and Technology Hub, known as RISE, a multi-institutional consortium to advance inertial fusion energy as a power source that could one day dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of how energy is supplied globally.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced on Dec. 7 a four-year, $16 million grant for the hub, which is led by Colorado State University and includes several universities, government labs and private companies. The Laboratory of Plasma Studies, directed by Gennady Shvets, professor of applied and engineering physics, is one of the hub “spokes” and brings to the consortium nearly six decades of fundamental and applied research in pulsed-power-driven plasma physics, including research related to inertial fusion energy.
The hub is being established on the heels of exciting new developments in the science of fusion – a process that produces nuclear reactions similar to those happening at the center of the sun. Scientists have long hoped to harness this reaction to enable a safe, clean and reliable energy source, but challenges remain.
In an experiment that made international headlines when it was announced in July, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used inertial confinement fusion – an approach that uses powerful lasers to compress, heat and ignite a small target containing fusible material – to achieve ignition, creating more energy from the self-sustaining fusion reaction than they put in to create the reaction.
“Everybody at the Laboratory of Plasma Studies was thrilled to hear about the experiment’s success, but it was also clear to us that laser fusion has a long way to go,” said Shvets, who noted that one of the key challenges to producing commercially viable fusion energy is the low wall-plug efficiency of lasers like the ones used in the experiment – something Shvets will address as part of the hub.
Wall-plug efficiency is the rate at which a system converts electrical power into optical power, and it is an issue Shvets first investigated in the late 1990s when he and collaborators proposed a simple way of using the nonlinear properties of plasma to amplify a short laser pulse by a counter-propagating long pulse. A similar process, referred to as Brillouin scattering, also operates in gases, and will be the basis for Xcimer Energy Corporation – a RISE Hub member – to create megajoule laser beams.
The task that will be undertaken by Laboratory of Plasma Studies scientists and graduate students will be to model the amplification of a nanosecond laser pulse through hundreds of meters of gas using massively parallel computer simulations that will include a myriad of nonlinear phenomena, such as the steepening of sound waves in a gas, filamentation of the amplified laser beam, and the depletion of the counter-propagating laser beam.
Other members of the RISE Hub include Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Naval Research Laboratory, Marvel Fusion, Xcimer Energy and General Atomics.