CSU lasers likely to be key to fusion power future

(Photo by John Cline | Office of Vice President for Research)

The quest for abundant, carbon-free energy will likely get a big boost by Colorado State University, home to advanced laser technology and a key partner in a national research consortium to advance nuclear fusion energy. 

A scientific breakthrough announced this week by the Department of Energy was met with excitement at CSU. Although commercial use of fusion energy is decades away, the goal seems closer than ever now, and the Advanced Beam Laboratory at CSU’s Foothills Research Campus is poised to play an important role.

CSU is one of 10 institutions with high-intensity laser facilities called LaserNetUS. It’s a consortium of researchers, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the fusion energy breakthrough occurred.  In August, about 160 of the world’s top scientists and engineers who use the most powerful lasers convened at CSU for the LaserNetUS conference. 

CSU has one of the world’s most intense lasers, called Advanced Laser for Extreme Photonics. Among other things, the technology can produce three laser shots per second – the highest rate for lasers of this type. High-speed lasers help accelerate tests and hasten research.  

In collaboration with the LLNL, CSU is integrating machine learning into its laser experiments, which enable faster data acquisition. Additionally, CSU has expertise for advancing critical optical coatings and target materials affected by lasers. Advanced lasers also contribute to the fabrication of powerful computer chips. The research helps train students and contributes to a proficient workforce that will support fusion energy science far into the future. 

(Photo by John Cline | Office of Vice President for Research)

In a presentation to the CSU Board of Governors earlier this month, CSU Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph outlined plans for a new $55 million Center for Advanced Lasers and Extreme Photonics at the Foothills Campus. It would build upon existing technology and collaborations to create the next generation of powerful lasers key to discoveries in clean energy, advanced manufacturing and national defense.  

That vision aligns with the White House long-term aspiration for commercial fusion energy. The DoE Office of Science commissioned a workshop for inertial fusion energy research. That endeavor will put forward a roadmap to advance this form of fusion energy with critical roles for national labs, the private sector and universities, including CSU. CSU has a long and successful track record in catalyzing public-private partnerships.  

Lasers are key to fusion energy research. At LLNL, they used 192 lasers to force hydrogen atoms to fuse together, the same processes at work in the sun and the stars. The fused atoms unleash enormous energy without emitting air pollutants, greenhouse gases or radioactive waste created by current nuclear power plants. 

In the experiment, scientists were able to generate a net gain of energy – the first time that has happened. It only lasted a few seconds – indicating how much more research needs to be done – but it’s a milestone event that scientists have been working toward since the 1950s. 

“This is the first time in a laboratory anywhere on Earth we were able to demonstrate more energy coming out of a fusion reaction than was put in,” said Tammy Ma, plasma physicist at Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility that conducted the fusion experiments, during a press conference this week. 

“… The potential benefits are enormous. Clean, carbon-free, abundant and reliable energy capable of meeting the world’s energy demands. Furthermore, it can provide for the energy security and sovereignty of the U.S.,” Ma said. 

She added that the tests demonstrate basic scientific feasibility of inertial fusion energy and set a roadmap for more gains and fusion pilot plants in the decades ahead.

“Think of this as the first flight by the Wright brothers. It’s a key breakthrough and a significant first step, but there’s a long way to go before we have a big, shiny jetliner,” said Jorge Rocca, CSU University Distinguished Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Physics and head of the Advanced Beam Laboratory. 

(Graphic by Sarah Harman | U.S. Department of Energy)

For CSU, the breakthrough underscores a significant opportunity to team with the DoE, national labs, other universities and private industry to accelerate laser fusion research.  

Said Rocca: “It is exciting that CSU is involved in this national and international effort to solve one of the world’s most important problems in a team effort in which students and young scientists will play a key role.”