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the day the national ignition Facility in the Us achieves first ignition, or break-even, it will create huge demand for laser diodes and will be the day a new laser diode market is ignited Image courtesy of LLNL


Fusion power could represent a huge market for the laser industry. But is the industry ready to take advantage of this opportunity? nadya Anscombe investigates

an industry M

16 ElEctro optics l MARCH 2011

ost industrial markets take many years to develop and mature; their beginnings are usually small and led by a few brave companies, with

everyone else jumping on the bandwagon as the market gathers momentum. Very few markets are established quickly, but it seems there is one laser market that will be created, quite literally, at the flick of a switch. It all depends on what happens at the National

Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest and highest-energy laser, which is being used to make fusion power a reality at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), California, USA. At the moment, the NIF uses up more energy than it releases, but the day the NIF breaks even (first ignition) will be a momentous day for the laser industry. It will set in motion a chain of events that looks set to change the laser industry for ever. The fusion power plants of tomorrow are already being designed and planned. These will

be poised to continue the great work at the NIF and to turn laser-driven power into a commercial reality. But to do this, a power plant needs lasers. Lots of lasers. Specifically, they will need high-power diode- pumped solid state lasers (DPSSLs) with pulse energies and repetition rates that current DPSSLs cannot achieve. And these high-power DPSSLs will each need several diode bars to pump them. Perhaps ‘several’ is a bit of an understatement; it is estimated that a typical laser-driven fusion power plant will need up to 300 million laser diode bars – more than 100 times the level of demand that current global supply would be able to meet. Break-even ignition at NIF is expected to

happen in mid-2012. It will mark the beginning of a whole new market for laser diodes and DPSSLs. In anticipation of that day, the laser industry needs to prepare itself to meet the demand from the fusion power industry. However some individuals are concerned that this is not happening. ‘There is a very real concern that DPSSLs of

the right power and the appropriate repetition rate will not be available when we need them,’ says John Parris, strategic communications manager at HiPER, the UK-based European high- power laser energy research facility dedicated to demonstrating the feasibility of laser-driven fusion as a future energy source. ‘Very few companies today have the capacity to make the lasers and the large optics that we will need, and this supply chain is not the sort of thing that can grow overnight.’ Availability is not the only concern; the high

cost is a major issue, especially when it comes to laser diodes. Ryan Feeler, sales manager at Northrop

Grumman Cutting Edge Optronics (NGCEO), tells Electro Optics magazine: ‘Current projections indicate that the laser diode arrays need to be available for approximately one US cent per Watt of output power. This is one to two orders of magnitude cheaper than currently available.’ In order to reach these cost targets in 10 years’

time, the industry must experience an annual growth rate of 60 per cent, which seems high, but is comparable to growth rates seen in the LED industry. ‘This is achievable; it is not totally crazy,’ says Feeler. ‘But the biggest problem our industry faces is that it has never been asked to do something like this before. All manufacturing methods have been developed with certain volume assumptions. Diode arrays are today made in a very modular way and geared to a wide range of applications. Making laser diodes for fusion power stations would mean large volume manufacturing techniques, with all the laser

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