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Massive Funding for Nuclear Fusion Projects, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Nuclear fusion is an atomic energy-releasing process in which light weight atomic nuclei, which might be hydrogen or deuterium, combine to form heavier nuclei, such as helium.  The result is the release of a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat.  This is essentially the same process that produces energy in the Sun and other stars.  It may be many years before nuclear fusion becomes a practical commercial energy source (if it ever does), but several well-funded efforts are attempting to do so.  The hope is that fusion could eventually be used as a high output, low pollution energy source for the production of electric power.

In 2009, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California completed the National Ignition Facility ( ).  Laser technology is one of today’s bright hopes for making fusion popular, and this facility will utilize one of the largest lasers in the world.  It is capable of delivering 500 million megawatts of power in a pulse that lasts 20 billionths of a second.  The facility took 12 years to build and cost $3.5 billion.  As of 2016, LLNL was constructing a $45 million High Repetition-Rate Advanced Petawatt Laser System for the Extreme Light Infrastructure Beamlines facility in the Czech Republic.  The system is expected to deliver peak power greater than one petawatt.

Meanwhile, the Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER, ) is under construction at Cadarache, France.  A prominent technology for nuclear fusion is called magnetic-confinement fusion.  This method relies on a magnetic field to hold hydrogen isotopes together in a vessel called a tokamak.  The ITER project is based on this kind of vessel.  The $15 billion project budget is funded by a consortium that includes the United States, the EU, Russia, China, Japan, India and Korea.  Japan also has a smaller, laser technology fusion project that is underway.


SPOTLIGHT:  Ultrashort Pulse Laser Technology

Ultrashort Pulse (USP) technology utilizes ultrafast lasers that pulse on and off at almost immeasurable speed, about once every femtosecond, which is a billionth of a millionth of a second.  These lasers can destroy atoms by knocking out electrons.  Unlike typical lasers, matter around the destroyed atom(s) is not subjected to heat.  Therefore, USP lasers could more effectively treat malignant tumors, perform LASIK surgery, scan aircraft for explosives or even remove tattoos.  In 2015, Coherent, Inc. acquired startup laser company Raydiance, Inc., which developed a software-controlled, desktop-sized USP laser.  Raydiance partnered with Rutgers University and the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation to test the Raydiance laser platform as a method to maximize transplants processed from donated dermal tissue.  Other potential applications for the technology include a scalable method for machining thin film photovoltaic cells; better systems for building semiconductors; and combining USP with nanoparticle technology for improved medical imaging and treatment.



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