French scientist Sylvie Jacquemot has spent almost all of her scientific career working in laser-produced plasma physics research. She fostered collaborations between European researchers towards an ambitious long-term goal: The production of laser induced fusion energy. Complementing EUROfusion’s main work in magnetic confined fusion, Sylvie’s project has been supported by two consecutive Enabling Research (ER) Grants.

Trained laser scientist

Sylvie Jacquemot Picture: private

Sylvie Jacquemot
Picture: private

“When I started working with lasers, I would never have thought that my studies would be useful for astrophysics”, says Sylvie. After finishing her engineering studies in 1985, Sylvie Jacquemot joined CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) in order to study laser-produced plasma physics. She spent more than 20 years at one of the branches of the EUROfusion’s French Research Unit, CEA, before accepting a position at the LULI laboratory (Laboratoire pour l’Utilisation des Lasers Intenses) in 2002. Sylvie’s project “Towards the demonstration of Inertial Fusion Energy” (ToIFE) has been the recipient of EUROfusion’s Enabling Research Grants twice.

A different plasma heating approach

While EUROfusion’s main work focuses on Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF), Sylvie’s project is quite different because it deals with laser-driven fusion. Fusion power can be generated using magnetic fields to confine the hot fusion fuel in form of a plasma. This is precisely what happens in tokamaks and stellarators. Sylvie’s approach, laser-driven fusion, or inertial confinement fusion (ICF) initiates fusion reactions by heating and compressing a tiny fuel target, mostly a pellet containing a deuterium-tritium mixture, using high-energy laser beams or, alternatively, high-energy ion beams.

Laser – a simpler way to study plasma physics

“It is still impossible to say whether magnetic or laser fusion energy will be the most viable method of successfully delivering fusion energy”, says Sylvie. For her, it is not a race or a competition, indeed the two approaches may even be complementary.
The versatility and the flexibility of laser experiments facilitate the investigation of fusion plasmas. And it makes the implementation of in situ diagnostics easy. Energy transport within a hot plasma, x-ray emission or material science can thus be studied. But, in inertial confinement fusion, neutrons are produced in very intense and short bursts creating a much harsher environment for materials in laser systems than in tokamaks which are designed to operate continuously.

Teaming up

Team work and cooperation is something that has always played a vital role in Sylvie’s professional life. For “ToIFE” she brings together researchers from major European labs in nine different countries who are working on laser fusion and related topics.
“The objective is to show that inertial confinement fusion is feasible. For that, we all need to work together, just like the magnetic fusion community is doing within the ITER project”, she says. Accordingly, the project is taking advantage of the privileged access to French plasma experimentalists to large-scale laser facilities, German knowledge with regard to ion manipulation, Spanish expertise in material science and Portuguese capabilities for massive parallel particle-in-cell simulations.
Two consecutive Enabling Research Grants from EUROfusion have financed travel and consumables for the group. The outcomes are collaborative code developments and fruitful experiments on European lasers but also, across the pond, on unique US facilities such as OMEGA at the University of Rochester.

The laser hall of the LULI2000 facility at Ecole Polytechnique, where parts of the ToIFE experimental studies are conducted. Picture: © Barande Jérémy/EP.

The laser hall of the LULI2000 facility at Ecole Polytechnique, where parts of the ToIFE experimental studies are conducted. Picture: © Barande Jérémy/EP.

Serving beyond fusion

And it’s not only fusion science that benefits from research in basic plasma physics. “In fact, when irradiating a target with laser beams, it is possible to reproduce the temperature and pressure conditions of planet interiors or violent astrophysical phenomena such as supernovae. This is an event that occurs when a massive star ends its life in an explosion, emitting a huge amount of energy and launching materials and strong shock waves through the interstellar medium, thus triggering the formation of new stars. This process is being potentially powered by nuclear fusion – one more example of how fusion science is a part of to fundamental research.

The spirit of collaboration

Labs in nine different countries have joined ToIFE to prove that laser driven fusion energy is feasible.

Labs in nine different countries have joined ToIFE to prove that laser driven fusion energy is feasible.

TOIFE already has access to key fusion experiments which are currently being performed on the National Ignition Facility, which is the only laser system operating in the suitable energy range. “Other Mega joule-class facilities will be available soon, in China and Russia but mostly in France, with the Laser MégaJoule. These transnational cooperations will allow us to compare, improve and validate concepts and explore new ideas. It will boost the field but will require strong transnational teamwork“, Sylvie says. She hopes that, when she hands the project over in 2019, her successor will continue to pursue her efforts towards the integration of the European laser fusion community.

Enabling Research Grants

EUROfusion supports the Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE) project within its Enabling Research (ER) Grant programme. In November 2014, 19 ER projects, including Sylvie’s one, were selected for funding. EUROfusion has identified these projects as key elements in the pursuit of new science and technology ideas. The recently published mid-term evaluation of the ER programme has already identified a substantial impact of the supported projects beyond fusion science or established technology. EUROfusion’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee, which evaluates and selects the ER proposals, acknowledges that some projects fill critical gaps in the EUROfusion programme. Also, these two and three year projects lead to the recruitment of a number of post-docs into fusion, as well as supporting PhD theses. Moreover, the flexible management and timescales enable fruitful interactions with external communities. They increase the exchange of scientists and the importing of ideas.