Lithuanian researchers develop powerful laser to tackle problem of nuclear waste disposal

Lazeris ("Eksma" nuotr.)

Lithuanian researchers have recently developed an ultra-short pulse laser, which could solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal and management. The system is powerful enough to potentially eliminate nuclear waste and accelerate its decay period from thousands of years to just a few days, hours or seconds, depending on the radioactive material in question, scientists say.

In the long run, this new technology could revolutionize the energy sector, not only cutting costs of nuclear waste storage, but also helping the industry transition to a more environmentally friendly future.

Developed by Lithuanian laser companies

SYLOS is a high-intensity ultra-short pulse laser, co-produced by two Vilnius-based laser technology companies Light Conversion and EKSPLA. The new laser system is the result of a five-year collaboration between the two major Lithuanian laser manufacturers and 2018 Nobel Physics Prize winner, Professor Gérard Mourou.

Dubbed the world’s most powerful and fastest laser, SYLOS is capable of generating high-intensity ultra-short pulses, whose peak power exceeds that of the most powerful nuclear energy plant in the US by a thousand times. Scientists claim that a laser of this kind could potentially solve the dilemma of nuclear waste disposal, an idea first raised by Nobel laureate Gérard Mourou.

Professor Mourou is advancing the technology of nuclear waste transmutation, which allows scientists to reduce the radiotoxicity of nuclear waste by changing its atomic composition with SYLOS-like laser systems. Currently, nuclear waste transmutation stands as an alternative solution to nuclear waste disposal, whereby nuclear waste atoms are bombarded by laser-induced elementary particles, making nuclear waste processable into less radioactive materials. This way, the decay period of nuclear waste can be reduced from thousands of years to mere minutes, explained Donatas Lengvinas, High-Intensity Laser Program manager at EKSPLA.

Alternative solution to nuclear waste storage

While nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, unlike their fossil fuel-powered counterparts, the generation of nuclear power produces radioactive waste as a by-product. If disposed of improperly, radioactive waste can cause irrevocable environmental contamination and acute health effects, caused by exposure to high levels of radiation.

‘Currently, the disposal of nuclear waste is comprised of either storing the waste in containers on above-surface level or burying them underground, depending on the decay period of the radioactive material. This method is raising safety concerns, as some of the waste is disposed not too far from densely populated areas, and highly radioactive waste has to be safely stored for up to tens of thousands of years,’ said Artūras Plukis, Head of Experimental Nuclear Physics Laboratory at the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology in Vilnius.

While SYLOS is a highly promising technology, with biological, medical and academic applications, several challenges remain before it can be manufactured and applied on an industrial scale, claims Darius Godonas, head of the Scientific Laser Systems Division at Light Conversion.

‘We do believe that lasers like SYLOS can be adapted to solve the nuclear waste issue globally without leaving it for future generations to deal with. How soon this could be achieved will depend on the political will of governments, since lasers and infrastructure of this kind could cost up to billions of euros per unit,’ Godonas says.

Challenges remain

However, compared to funds needed for nuclear waste disposal and management each year, SYLOS-like laser systems performing laser transmutation could be much more ‘cost-effective and environmentally friendly’ in the long term, said Lengvinas to Nuclear Energy Insider earlier this month.

According to a report by GE Hitachi, in 2015 alone, the economic costs of nuclear waste disposal and management have reached a whopping $100 billion, split between Europe ($51 billion), the US ($40 billion) and Canada ($6.5 billion).

If this waste could be neutralized by SYLOS-like laser systems, industrial application of the new technology could be revolutionary to the whole energy sector, not only cutting economic costs of managing and disposing of nuclear waste but also gearing the industry towards a safer, cleaner and carbon-free future.

Lithuanians leading the laser industry

Lithuania can be proud of its impressive track record in high-quality laser manufacturing and cutting-edge laser research, being one of the key players in the global industry of laser technology. Over 50 years since the beginning of fundamental laser research, Lithuania has become the cradle of pioneering laser technology companies and quality physics education.

Currently, more than 40 companies operate in the Lithuanian laser sector, employing over a thousand highly skilled professionals and exporting products (over 80% of overall production) to 100 countries across the world. Moreover, according to the 2019 report by the Lithuanian Laser Association, Lithuanian lasers are used by 90 of the world’s top 100 universities as well as by NASA, CERN and ELI. In addition, Lithuanian lasers are also used by such world-class companies as IBM, Hitachi, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

“Although lasers represent a relatively small share of Lithuania’s overall export market, they make Lithuania famous around the world and advance global science. The need for laser technology worldwide is constantly increasing, so the development of unique products and participation in such large international projects provides greater opportunities and further strengthens Lithuania’s position in laser science and industry,” said Gintaras Vilda, Vice Minister for the Economy and Innovation, at the ceremony of Hungary’s Laser Research Centre, where the SYLOS laser system was introduced. With regards to the ultra-short pulse laser industry, Lithuania currently supplies over 50% of lasers to the global market, with Lithuanian lasers now operating on almost every major continent.

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