The European Union will spend about 700 million euros ($900 million) to build the world’s most powerful lasers, technology that could destroy nuclear waste and provide new cancer treatments.
The Extreme Light Infrastructure project has obtained funding for two lasers to be built in the Czech Republic and Romania, Shirin Wheeler, spokeswoman for the European Commission on regional policy, said in a phone interview. A third research center will be in Hungary.
The lasers are 10 times more powerful than any yet built and will be strong enough to create subatomic particles in a vacuum, similar to conditions that may have followed the start of the universe. Eventually, the power of the light beams could be used to deteriorate the radioactivity of nuclear waste in just a few seconds and target cancerous tumors, the projects’s Romanian coordinator Nicolae-Victor Zamfir said in an interview.
“We can’t find in nature any phenomenon with such an intense power like the one that will be generated with this laser,” Zamfir said in a phone interview from Romania. “We expect to see the first results of our research in one or two years after the centre becomes operational.”
The Magurele research center, where the Romanian laser will be located, will consume about 10 megawatts of energy, enough to supply about 2,500 average U.S. households. Most of it will come from geothermal pumps installed at the site, where the laser is expected to become operational in 2017.
“It is probably one of the largest such sites in Europe using unconventional energy,” Zamfir said.
Zamfir said companies from the computer industry have shown interest in the project, but none from the nuclear sector. “We haven’t advertised the project yet properly, possibly also because we didn’t have the EU’s approval.”
The research may replicate the same principles used in a new type of cancer radiotherapy called hadrontherapy, Zamfir said. It directly targets deep-rooted tumors, reducing the risk of recurrence or new tumors. The first results of the experiments are expected for 2018-2019.
“This treatment already exists, but requires expensive and big accelerators,” Zamfir said. “If it becomes possible by using this type of laser, it can be implemented at lower costs as technology advances and the lasers get cheaper.”
The laser technology might also be used to reduce the time it take for atomic waste to lose its radioactivity from thousands of years to a few seconds. That could remove the need to build underground stores to keep waste secure for centuries.
“It’s going to take almost 20 years until we would be able to do it, but right now many countries don’t see any solution in the near future,” Zamfir said.
The EU is basing the broject in eastern European countries to support science in former communist countries, where a tradition of research hasn’t prevented academics seeking better- paid posts outside the region.
“The hope is to create a virtuous circle that by having the infrastructure there you also attract more funds and research ,” the European Commission’s Wheeler said.
The city of Magurele is home to Romania’s National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, established in 1949 and one of the biggest nuclear physics research centers in eastern Europe during the communist era.
Although research is still being carried at the institute, Romania, it’s losing scientsits because it invests only 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product in research, compared with a European average of 2 percent.
The research center is less than 10 kilometers away from Bucharest, but the journey can take around 20 minutes on an old road that is now being enlarged.
“There’s no direct public transportation from the center of Bucharest -- you need to change the bus and then hitchhike for those private minibuses,” Zamfir said. “We now hope it will change.”
In Romania, 200 researchers will work at the project full time, with around 1,000 more expected to visit the center for experiments each year once it starts working, according to Zamfir.
The project will be followed by the construction of an even more powerful laser and any of the three countries already involved in the project, plus the U.K., might host the laser. The ELI-Ultra High Field Facility will reach 200 petawatts of power, or 100,000 times the power of the world electric grid.
“The proposal for the fourth site should have been made in 2012, but we haven’t reached maturity with the ongoing three projects to draw enough conclusions,” Zamfir said.
The EU expects to spend 550 million euros in the first phase of the project ending December 2013, Wheeler said. Further applications from Romania and Hungary for the second part of the project should raise the total funding from the organization to 700 million euro, more than 80 percent of the entire cost of the project. About 180 million will come from other sources.
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