Background

In the 1970’s it was demonstrated that one could used lasers to implode a capsule of fusion fuel to release significant energy - a process called "inertial fusion". There was much laser development around the world to realise the kinds of lasers needed to drive such capsules to the point where this energy release could be harnessed. With the latest generation of lasers (NIF in California and LMJ in France), we are on the threshold of achieving "ignition". This is the demonstration of a self-sustaining fusion reaction with a net production of energy. That is, a reaction which releases more fusion energy from the capsule than is delivered by the laser system. Current plans confidently predict this transformational event in the period 2010 to 2012.

" Achieving "ignition" will provide the physical demonstration that scaling to high energy output is possible. "

The next logical step is to move from this scientific milestone to a commercial energy source. This requires parallel activities in high repetition rate laser systems, mass production of fusion capsules, viable designs for the power station, and optimisation of the fusion energy production mechanism. The HiPER project aims to bring all these activities together in a coordinated manner across Europe.

To date, exploitation of inertial fusion energy has been limited to the defence sector due to the scale of the laser facilities needed to initiate the process, and because of the classified nature of the x-ray driven implosion. The advent of "Fast Ignition" - the approach used by HiPER - has completely changed the landscape, removing the dependence on defence programmes. Fast ignition capsules require far smaller laser systems and only use optical irradiation. This has no direct application to the defence programme, and so opens up the opportunity for a commercial inertial fusion energy programme.

Recent physics developments, through a UK- Japanese collaboration have been published in a series of articles in Nature and have led to the 2006 American Physical Society award for Excellence in Plasma Physics. These results prompted European institutions to begin considering this approach as a route to fusion energy. Construction of HiPER would allow Europe to lead the world in this field.