The University of Oklahoma is among the multi-institutional team led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to accelerate inertial fusion energy science and technology. The initiative, “Inertial Fusion Energy Science and Technology Accelerated Research for Fusion Innovation and Reactor Engineering hub,” or IFE STARFIRE, is one of three inertial fusion energy hubs funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. OU is leading the workforce development and inertial fusion energy ecosystem stewardship focus for the IFE STARFIRE hub.
“Ensuring the success of our nation’s fusion energy strategy depends on a multitude of factors beyond the technology itself,” said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. “At the University of Oklahoma, we are eager to channel our expertise toward the development of a highly skilled workforce and an effective public policy approach, both of which are key to supporting this emerging technology.”
Last year, LLNL researchers achieved fusion ignition, proving for the first time, that fusion energy can be realized. The LLNL team used lasers to replicate how the sun generates energy through fusion reactions. The breakthrough discovery sets the stage for the commercialization of fusion energy as a source of low-cost, abundant power for the planet that would be safe and free of greenhouse gas emissions and long-lived radioactive waste.
“Harnessing fusion energy is one of the greatest scientific and technological challenges of the 21st Century,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a DOE news release. “We now have the confidence that it’s not only possible, but probable, that fusion energy can be a reality. The scientists in these hubs will be the vanguard of game-changing and planet-saving breakthroughs.”
In an editorial published in Forbes last month, OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia said, “Successful commercial development of fusion energy will be among history's most profound changes. Fusion will offer a clean, sustainable baseload and safe energy source that, when conquered on Earth, will enable a transformational change from energy scarcity to abundance — enabling us to do things that could never have been done before, overcoming enduring global grand challenges, like desalinating water, and making sustainable transportation fuels.”
Since the breakthrough advancement of fusion ignition, the University of Oklahoma has positioned itself through federal and industry partnerships to advance the research and development needed to realize fusion’s commercial potential. In 2022, OU announced partnerships with IFE STARFIRE hub collaborator Longview Fusion Energy Systems Inc. and Oklahoma-based Tribal Nations to develop new fusion engineering and technology workforce development programs to benefit Oklahoma communities, laying the foundation for the path forward.
For the IFE STARFIRE hub, OU, with partners MIT, Texas A&M, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Diego, and contributors at the University of Rochester, LLNL, and the Livermore Lab Foundation, will expand education in this field and prepare students for future careers in inertial fusion energy.
“OU leading this thrust serves as our gateway to contributing significantly to the future landscape of scientific and technological advancements in materials crucial for fusion reactors, such as target and radiation-resistant materials," said Horst Hahn, distinguished materials visiting professor at OU. “Our potential impact is poised to shape the trajectory of future innovations.”
Bin Wang, a professor at OU’s School of Sustainable Chemical, Biological, and Materials Engineering and a member of the project team, added, “We are excited to work together with LLNL, developing curriculum materials and outreach activities related to fusion technology to train next-generation engineers ready for this emerging opportunity. Expertise in chemical engineering is also very valuable for the project's next step, which is to build a pilot plant, which is a strength of our chemical engineering students.”
Jacob Crouch, a doctoral student in Wang’s lab, was the first Fusion Fellow sponsored by the Livermore Lab Foundation, a philanthropic partner of LLNL and its National Ignition Facility. Wang said OU’s collaboration with LLNL and leadership in the hub provides a valuable opportunity for students to gain first-hand experience in the development of the technology and to interact with the world’s leading experts in inertial fusion energy.
OU’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis contributes deep expertise in bridging science with public policy scholarship to uncover solutions to complex challenges.
“A challenge of implementing fusion technology will be differentiating fusion power plants from nuclear fission. As fusion technology develops, what are the approaches to siting development facilities, fabrication facilities, and energy reactors that can succeed in gaining local public support? At the same time, we will need to look at the regulatory environment in which this operates and work on approaches for assuring safety that don’t preclude siting these facilities,” said Hank Jenkins-Smith, director of OU’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. “Further, it is critical that the development of fusion can be integrated in a way that fits a community’s vision of its future, and, clearly, sustainable clean energy can be a critical part of that.”
The IFE STARFIRE team includes members from seven universities, four U.S. national labs, one international lab, three commercial entities, one philanthropic organization, and three private inertial fusion energy companies. Learn more about the IFE STARFIRE hub via the LLNL website.
The LLNL-led hub is one of three projects totaling $42 million in funding selected via competitive peer review under the DOE Funding Opportunity Announcement for Inertial Fusion Energy Science & Technology Accelerated Research (IFE-STAR), announced at LLNL’s Ignition Celebration by Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm.