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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/K028464/1
Title: Identifying the Key Factors Currently Preventing Ignition in Inertial Confinement Fusion Experiments.
Principal Investigator: Chittenden, Professor J
Other Investigators:
Rose, Professor S
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Dept of Physics
Organisation: Imperial College London
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 September 2013 Ends: 31 August 2017 Value (£): 838,065
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Plasmas - Laser & Fusion
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Energy
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
27 Feb 2013 EPSRC Physical Sciences Energy – February 2013 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Thermonuclear fusion is the mechanism by which energy is generated in the Sun. For decades scientists have been attempting to harness fusion for electrical power production because of the huge advantages it offers as a safe, clean and almost inexhaustible supply of energy. In laboratory experiments, fusion is normally studied by heating the heavy isotopes of hydrogen to very high temperatures forming a plasma, in which the rapid motion of the positively charged ions is sufficient to overcome their electrostatic repulsion and allow them to undergo nuclear reactions. One of the main approaches to extracting energy from these reactions is Inertial Confinement Fusion. This involves assembly of the thermonuclear fuel to ultra-high density (over 1000 times the density of water) inside a mm-scale capsule through a spherical implosion driven by high-power lasers. Central to this method is the process of ignition in which the energetic alpha particles emerging from the reactions are themselves used to further heat the fuel, resulting in a self-sustaining burn wave which releases copious amounts of energy. This is a very exciting time for fusion research because with the completion of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the first laboratory facility with the capacity to demonstrate ignition is now operational.

Early results from the NIF however have highlighted differences between the predictions of computer models and the behaviour observed. Most importantly the number of nuclear reactions has remained too low to initiate ignition. The PI and Co-I on this grant have worked extensively with scientists at LLNL to understand the origins of these discrepancies and participated in the Science of Ignition workshop which identified priority research directions to address these issues.

For this proposal we wish to capitalise upon our experience with plasmas of extremely high density and temperature to address key uncertainties in the design of inertial confinement fusion experiments and the physics of ignition and work to provide an explanation of why the current design does not achieve ignition and burn. Key areas of research will include understanding the way in which the radiation used to drive the implosion is absorbed in the surface of the capsule, the susceptibility of the imploding capsule to hydrodynamic instabilities which cause the fuel to disintegrate before it is fully compressed and the tendency of the high temperature and low temperature regions of the fuel to stir and mix together which quenches the burn. We will also investigate the physics of the ignition process itself, evaluating whether the energetic alpha particles are able to escape the fuel before depositing their energy and the role of spontaneously generated magnetic fields which provide a form of thermal insulation and serve to keep the heat within the fuel.

Part of the work will involve developing a number of advanced computer modelling capabilities. In addition to their use in fusion research, these capabilities can also be used to exploit large scale laser facilities for fundamental research in plasma physics, nuclear physics and laboratory astrophysics. Using these computer models to simulate a fusion capsule in which we deliberately introduce an imperfection, we can calculate what characteristic signatures of this defect are embedded within the flux of energetic neutrons and X-rays emanating from the reacting fuel. Comparing synthetic diagnostic data with that obtained in experiment then allows us to isolate which physical processes are responsible for limiting fusion performance. The same computer models can then be used to design improvements which mitigate these effects and allow us to make progress towards achieving ignition. The work described in this proposal therefore represents an opportunity for UK science to make a significant contribution to what would be a major scientific achievement.

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