High density laser-created plasma physics research is done at Colorado State University’s Laboratory for Advanced Lasers and Extreme Photonics, July 22, 2019.

If world scientists confirm recent breakthroughs in a 90-year effort to harness nuclear fusion for limitless clean energy, key revelations in the quest may very well come from a laser lab at Colorado State University. 

CSU officials and business partners announced this week a joint funding agreement for a $150 million complex in Fort Collins that will house one of the most advanced laser devices in the world, with laser technology now the leading method in the search for replicable fusion success. Unlike fission, the splitting of radioactive atoms, fusion merges atomic nuclei to release heat the way the sun does, with minimal hazardous waste and no greenhouse gases. 

CSU will add to its existing advanced laser lab in partnership with the private German firm Marvel Fusion. Here are some whys and hows of the plan: 

What is fusion energy and why is it important? 

Scientists learned long ago how to split atoms to devastating — and sometimes beneficial — results. Fission gives us massively deadly explosions and electricity without as much greenhouse gas as coal, but also produces tons of toxic radioactive waste no one wants. The danger factor of traditional nuclear reactors has pushed the cost to be literally priceless, and impossible to build. 

Fusion creates heat that can generate steam-driven electricity by ramming atomic nuclei together to create a heavier nucleus. In theory, a relatively small input of energy could launch an ongoing, controllable source of power without radioactive waste or greenhouse gas emissions. 

Rachelle Austin, PhD Candidate in Chemistry and Yusef Farah, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering, research a hot carrier for solar energy conversion in the Krummel Research Lab at Colorado State University. April 14, 2023. (Colorado State University)

Utah researchers gained notoriety in 1989 for an alleged “cold fusion” success, later debunked. This is not that. Hot fusion — the day job of our sun — is theoretically sound but very expensive to produce and replicate at large scale. 

What role do lasers play in figuring out fusion? 

Researchers have tried many mechanical and high-tech methods to create hot fusion. The most promising current technology involves assaulting atomic nuclei, usually of deuterium or tritium, with lasers at increasing levels of intensity and frequency. 

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California achieved a breakthrough in December, and more importantly were able to repeat and amplify the good results twice this summer, The Guardian reports. 

CSU has had a prominent laser lab for 10 years, the Advanced Beam Laboratory at the Foothills Campus. 

“Currently, we have one very powerful laser system at CSU that is used nationally and internationally. And this new facility will have at least three of those lasers, but each one will be at least twice as powerful as the current laser,” said Grant Calhoun, CSU’s director of industry research contracting. “So it’s a huge, huge improvement in power and speed.”

Why is CSU joining up with a private company? 

There are about 40 private companies around the globe working on promising fusion research, Calhoun said, but only a handful are focusing on lasers. The rest are primarily trying configurations involving powerful magnets and “tokamaks,” which are donut-shaped magnetic chambers containing plasma. 

Germany’s Marvel Fusion is not the largest laser company, but it’s in the top two or three, Calhoun said. Marvel’s research, like CSU’s, centers on lasers using short but frequent bursts of laser power. The breakthroughs at Lawrence Livermore focus on longer bursts, but because of the intensity can only be done a couple of times a day. That method requires enormous labs of football field length. 

Marvel and other private users can take advantage of U.S. Department of Energy funding that pairs researchers with tech entrepreneurs, Calhoun said. 

“The Marvel Fusion team has been coming to CSU over the last few years as a user of the facility,” through the DOE’s LaserNetUS program, he said. “The purpose of that program is to make sure that in North America, there are opportunities for research groups to use high energy laser systems without having to work for a university or at a facility that has its own.”

CSU has not yet provided a breakdown of its $150 million investment figure, or who is providing what. But the collaboration with Marvel is intended to finish the new laser addition by 2026. 

“They want to build the lasers here with us, because we’re technically the best, and we’re happy to have them, it’s a good deal for everyone,” Calhoun said. “It really is an example of academia and industry working together to solve one of the biggest challenges to humanity: clean energy.”

What happens if it never works? 

CSU is building the new facility, and Marvel is providing a portion of the new laser technology, Calhoun said. In exchange, Marvel will get a substantial amount of the precious time on the unique research configuration over the first three years.

If Marvel is successful in those three years, the desire for more laser research at CSU will only grow, Calhoun said. 

If Marvel’s approach does not work and the German company moves on, CSU will possess “one of the most powerful short pulse laser facilities in the world. So it’s really great. Everybody wins,” Calhoun said. 

“But we’re rooting for Marvel.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...