Lasers can generate extreme pressures and temperatures, and so can be used to ignite nuclear fusion - the same process that powers our Sun. Research into laser-driven fusion is currently underway and promises to address our increasing demands for energy. In addition, scientists are exploiting lasers in the development of solar cells
Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, tells us that energy and matter are interchangeable, such that even a small amount of matter can potentially be converted into a large amount of energy.
Nuclear fusion is Nature's way of releasing some of this energy and is the process that drives the sun and other stars. Here on Earth, atomic nuclei such as those of hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, can be fused into heavier nuclei such as helium, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process. Fusion has the potential to address our increasing energy needs, providing a safe and effectively inexhaustible energy supply, in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Laser-driven fusion could supply the world with an abundant, effectively limitless fuel supply.
The required fuel is readily available in sea water
Laser-driven fusion produces no greenhouse gas emissions and thus has a low environmental impact. Also, unlike nuclear power stations, there is no long-lived radioactivity, thereby reducing health risks.
The progression of laser-driven fusion, from proof-of-principle to commercial exploitation, will require a combination of specialised facilities and considerable scientific expertise. The construction of HiPER, the proposed European High Power laser Energy Research facility to demonstrate the feasibility of laser-driven fusion, would generate huge economic benefits both domestically and beyond. These include job creation and the capitalisation of emerging spin-off technologies.
One of its missions is to investigate the feasibility of nuclear fusion. NIF aims to produce more energy from a fusion reaction than is used to initiate the reaction. This would be a landmark demonstration of the principles of laser fusion.
If successful, NIF ignition will be the launchpad for the next generation of laser-fusion facility such as HiPER
The next step towards fusion.
HiPER is a European collaborative project that represents the next step in the development of laser fusion as an energy source. It aims to bridge fusion research and harnessing fusion energy on an industrial scale. Operating rather like a car engine, the fuel will be injected, then compressed and ignited via controlled laser pulses, creating the extreme conditions necessary for fusion. Unlike NIF, HiPER will integrate high repetition rate technology and will be capable of repeating the ignition process an estimated five times per second.
HiPER aims to demonstrate the full laser-fusion cycle, to provide the basis on which a new generation of electricity power stations could be built
Living organisms depend on complex and often extremely efficient biochemical processes to harness, store and transport energy. By understanding the underlying mechanisms of the light-capturing processes and energy transport involved in photosynthesis, for example, researchers aim to develop similar systems that could be employed in the next generation of solar cells.
Laser studies of how light triggers the movement of electrons through photosensitive biological structures are contributing to the scientific understanding of solar energy conversion at a molecular level. STFC scientists, in collaboration with partners, have performed experiments to measure the speed of electron transfer through these molecular structures. They involve firing a short laser pulse at a sample to stimulate the electron-transfer process, and then using a tuneable infrared laser to monitor how the system evolves in real time.