The European Union and other countries are discussing the funding of a 1 billion laser fusion project as a backup to the ITER fusion project. The bid to the European Union is to build an international laboratory, called “HiPER”, to run in parallel with the ITER machine. Bureaucrats in Brussels are interested. Canada and Russia have become involved and talks are under way with America, China, Japan and South Korea.
HiPER would use a promising new “fast ignition” technique. This laser-fusion technique was achieved in 2001 by Ryosuke Kodama and colleagues at Osaka University in Japan. The standard approach, being pursued in America and France, works like a diesel engine by compressing the fuel until it ignites. This calls for the lasers to be very finely tuned and the fuel pellet to be perfectly smooth, so that the implosion is symmetrical and fusion occurs. The fast-ignition technique is more like a petrol engine: first the fuel is compressed and only then is it ignited by a second laser pulse—acting as a spark plug—that is fired through a hole in the pellet.
HiPER nuclear fusion can happen using rough-and-ready lasers and rough-and-ready fuel. Fast ignition also takes less powerful lasers, because the reaction rides on the energy contained in the pellet after the first pulse. So it is more efficient, too.
Japan’s laser-fusion programme is like the proposed European one, but is smaller in scale. It does, however, have the advantage of already having started, so future upgrades will give a chance to compare results from the Japanese machine with the American and French results, which are expected in the next few years