Three new inertial fusion energy hubs have distinct, laser-focused missions

December 14, 2023, 7:00AMNuclear News
STARFIRE is the name of an inertial fusion energy hub led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—one of three hubs announced in early December. (Image: LLNL)

The Department of Energy recently announced that it was establishing three inertial fusion energy (IFE) hubs and funding them with a total of $42 million over four years. The leaders of the three hubs selected by competitive peer review—Colorado State University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University of Rochester—all issued press releases touting the attributes and plans of their facilities and their research collaborators on the same day—December 7.

Projects funded by the new Inertial Fusion Energy Science and Technology Accelerated Research (IFE-STAR) program will “bring together expertise and capabilities across DOE’s national laboratories, academia, and industry to advance IFE system components.” What can we expect to see from these hubs?

The DOE’s vision: The DOE says the multi-institutional, multidisciplinary hubs will “advance foundational [IFE] science and technology, building on the groundbreaking work of the department’s researchers into harnessing the power of the sun and stars.” That, of course, is a reference to last year’s successful fusion ignition at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility. In May 2023, the DOE announced the IFE-STAR funding opportunity during an ignition celebration at LLNL. Since the breakthrough at NIF, private investor interest and public funding for fusion energy research and development has snowballed, and IFE-STAR will help focus research on science and technology issues that will need to be resolved before inertial fusion can generate more than potential energy.

To date, the U.S. inertial confinement fusion program has been supported by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The DOE Office of Science’s new IFE program, within the office of Fusion Energy Sciences (FES), will address the science and technology research areas outlined in the recent Report of the 2022 Fusion Energy Sciences Basic Research Needs Workshop, as well as common scientific and technological gaps in the anticipated technology road maps of the IFE fusion companies participating in DOE-SC’s Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program (two of the eight private companies selected in May use laser-driven approaches).

According to the DOE, IFE-STAR projects will develop high-gain target designs; high-efficiency lasers at high repetition rates; and IFE-relevant fusion target manufacturing, tracking, and engagement. A major component of the funded projects is stewardship of the inertial fusion ecosystem, including the development of an inclusive and diverse workforce.

Colorado State—Inertial Fusion Science and Technology Hub: Colorado State’s Inertial Fusion Science and Technology Hub, dubbed RISE, has participation from Cornell University, General Atomics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Marvel Fusion, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Texas A&M University, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Xcimer Energy Corp. The hub will be co-led by the DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, operated by Stanford University, according to Colorado State.

The university has said that RISE will receive $16 million in funding over the next four years to “combine innovative target concepts with new developments in excimer gas lasers and solid-state laser drivers to open up novel IFE regimes.” Experiments at Colorado State will leverage the power of its ALEPH laser, a high repetition rate, petawatt-class (one petawatt: million billion watts) laser system to be upgraded to two petawatts.

Carmen Menoni, University Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, serves as director of the new hub. “We envision the hub to become a center of excellence for IFE science and technology and a magnet to attract talent and develop workforce to support DOE’s mission in IFE,” said Menoni. “We are thrilled to partner with a world-class team of experts who are committed to making IFE a commercial reality.”

LLNL—Innovation & Reactor Engineering Hub: According to LLNL, the laboratory’s Innovation & Reactor Engineering Hub is getting a four-year, $16 million award to accelerate IFE science and technology.

LLNL’s hub—dubbed STARFIRE—has more collaborators than any other, including seven universities, four U.S. national labs, one international lab, three commercial entities, one philanthropic organization, and three private IFE companies. In addition to researchers from LLNL, the other participants include General Atomics, University of California–San Diego, University of California–Berkeley, University of California–Los Angeles, University of Rochester, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M University, Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology, TRUMPF Inc., Leonardo Electronics US Inc., the Livermore Lab Foundation, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River National Laboratory, Xcimer Energy, Focused Energy Inc., and Longview Fusion Energy Systems.

“The achievement of ignition at LLNL’s [NIF] provides fresh impetus and the scientific foundation for IFE,” said LLNL IFE institutional initiative lead Tammy Ma, principal investigator for the IFE hub. “DOE’s IFE-STAR program represents the reestablishment of the public U.S. IFE program, and we are incredibly excited to bring together an excellent team to advance fusion energy, in synergy with our stewardship mission.”

The IFE-STARFIRE hub will accelerate demonstration of high-gain target designs, target manufacturing and engagement, and diode-pumped solid state laser technologies, with development of these technologies guided through an IFE-plant modeling framework. The project will also begin developing the workforce of the future for IFE through partnerships with leading universities and innovative new curriculum development and implementation.

University of Rochester—Laser-Plasma Interaction Research Hub: A four-year, $10-million award went to the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) to lead a hub on laser-plasma interaction research with participation from Ergodic LLC, University of California–Los Angeles, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Xcimer Energy.

The hub—named IFE-COLoR, for Inertial Fusion Energy-Consortium on LPI (laser-plasma interaction) Research—aims to test a new broadband long-pulse laser that would fire directly on hydrogen fuel to support a direct-drive IFE system.

A challenge for an inertial fusion energy system is efficiently coupling energy from the laser driver onto the fusion target, and the main culprit is laser-plasma instabilities at fusion conditions. Broadband and long-pulse lasers are predicted to mitigate laser-plasma instabilities, according to a press release from the University of Rochester. To demonstrate the new approach, the IFE-COLoR hub will couple laser technologies developed by LLE into the new Fourth Generation Laser for Ultrabroadband Experiments (FLUX) with advanced laser-plasma instability modeling and experiments guided by experimentally tested hydrodynamic simulations.

“From the initial experiments, scientists have wanted to use lasers with lots of colors (i.e., a large bandwidth) to mitigate laser-plasma instabilities,” says Dustin Froula, the IFE-COLoR principal investigator and the division director of plasma and ultrafast laser science and engineering at LLE. “It has taken more than fifty years to develop the technologies and science that will enable experiments to demonstrate the laser-plasma science that will underpin a future direct-drive inertial fusion energy system.”

LLE, established in 1970, is the largest DOE university-based research program in the nation and operates the Omega Laser Facility, the largest laser in the world at an academic institution, under a recently renewed cooperative agreement with the NNSA.

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