ARKANSAS, Dec 19 (Future Headlines)- The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is embarking on an ambitious journey toward advancing inertial fusion energy (IFE) science and technology. With a commitment of $42 million, the department is set to establish multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary hubs under the Inertial Fusion Energy Science and Technology Accelerated Research (IFE-STAR) program. This groundbreaking initiative comes at a pivotal moment, following recent successes in achieving fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where researchers demonstrated the feasibility of creating energy from fusion.

The IFE-STAR program is poised to play a crucial role in propelling inertial confinement fusion into the forefront of clean energy solutions. The hubs, led by esteemed institutions including Colorado State University, the University of Rochester, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will serve as epicenters for collaborative research, bringing together the collective expertise of national laboratories, academia, and industry partners. The overarching goal is to accelerate the development of foundational IFE science and technology, addressing key challenges and advancing the components critical to the success of inertial fusion.

Inertial confinement fusion involves the use of lasers or other technologies to compress and heat high-density plasmas, initiating a controlled fusion reaction. The recent breakthroughs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility, where scientific breakeven was achieved, have reignited interest and investment in the potential of inertial fusion as a viable energy source.

The IFE-STAR program allocates $42 million to support projects across the three established hubs. The funding spans a period of up to four years, with $9 million earmarked for fiscal year 2023 and an additional $33 million contingent on congressional appropriations in subsequent years. The selected projects underwent a rigorous peer review process to ensure their alignment with the goals outlined in the IFE Basic Research Needs Workshop report and the anticipated technology roadmaps of participating IFE fusion companies.

  • Three Pioneering Hubs: Leading the Charge

Inertial Fusion Energy-Consortium on Laser-Plasma Interaction Research Hub (Led by the University of Rochester):

Members: Ergodic LLC, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Xcimer Energy Corp.

Focus Areas: Laser-plasma interaction research, advancing technologies crucial to inertial fusion.

Inertial Fusion Science and Technology Hub (Led by Colorado State University):

Members: Cornell University, General Atomics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Marvel Fusion, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Texas A&M University, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Xcimer Energy Corp.

Objectives: Development of high-gain target designs, high-efficiency lasers, and manufacturing technologies for fusion targets.

National Science and Technology Accelerated Research for Fusion Innovation & Reactor Engineering Hub (Led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory):

Members: Focused Energy, Fraunhofer ILT, General Atomics, Leonardo Electronics US Inc., Livermore Lab Foundation, Longview Fusion Energy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River National Laboratory, TRUMPF, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Diego, University of Oklahoma, University of Rochester, Xcimer Energy Corp.

Key Focus Areas: Innovation in fusion technology, reactor engineering, and addressing scientific and technological gaps.

  • Achieving Scientific Breakeven: A Milestone for Fusion Energy

The IFE-STAR program gains significance against the backdrop of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s achievement of scientific breakeven in inertial confinement fusion. The successful demonstration of releasing more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it marks a pivotal moment in the quest for practical fusion energy.

One of the primary objectives of the IFE-STAR projects is to propel inertial fusion from low-gain, single-shot experiments toward high-gain and high repetition rates. Unlike magnetic confinement fusion, which aims for sustained burning plasma, inertial fusion will follow a repetitively pulsed approach. This strategic shift is envisioned to pave the way for a potential IFE pilot plant.

The Energy Act of 2020 and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 directed the DOE to establish an IFE research and technology development program. The IFE-STAR program is a response to this legislative directive, aligning with the vision outlined in the 2013 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, “An Assessment of the Prospects for Inertial Fusion Energy.”

While the successful realization of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has injected optimism into the fusion energy landscape, challenges remain. Achieving net energy gain in a controlled fusion environment poses formidable hurdles due to the extreme conditions involved. However, the IFE-STAR program aims to address these challenges by fostering collaborative research, leveraging diverse expertise, and advancing critical components of inertial fusion technology.

  • Conclusion: Shaping the Future of Fusion Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy’s $42 million investment in the IFE-STAR program marks a significant stride toward realizing the potential of inertial fusion as a clean and sustainable energy source. The collaboration between leading institutions, industry partners, and national laboratories underscores the collective commitment to advancing fusion science and technology. As the projects unfold over the coming years, they hold the promise of steering inertial confinement fusion from scientific breakthroughs to practical, high-gain applications, inching closer to a future powered by limitless, carbon-free energy.

Editing by Sarah White