High-power SYLOS laser could 'transmute' nuclear waste

Nobel Prize-winning professor says waste could be made safe in matter of hours.

Scientists working on the SYLOS laser system.

Two Lithuanian companies and a Nobel Prize-winning professor have created and demonstrated a laser powerful enough to reduce nuclear waste decay from hundreds of years to just a few hours.

The Single Cycle Laser SYLOS uses technology that ‘transmutes’ nuclear waste by bombarding atoms, and is being developed by 2018 Nobel Physics Prize co-winner, Professor Gerard Mourou.

Mourou and former student Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for research into Chirped Pulse Amplification, developed in the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester in the U.S.

SYLOS was developed by EKSPLA and Light Conversion at Hungary’s ELI-ALPS facility in Szeged. The aim is to produce the highest intensity laser pulses in the world with the highest repetition rates and shortest pulses.

SYLOS took five years to design and build, and produces Carrier Envelope Phase (CEP) stabilized laser pulses with a peak power of 4.9 TW.

Bombarding atoms

Although the concept of transmutation has been around for many years, and Mourou himself admits they are years away from a commercial solution, the potential for handling and storage of nuclear waste in plant decommissioning is significant.

“Laser itself does not reduce radiation in nuclear waste,” EKSPLA High Intensity Laser Program Manager Donatas Lengvinas told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“Professor Gerard Mourou is pushing the idea of bombarding atoms of nuclear waste by elementary particles generated using SYLOS-like laser systems. The so-called ‘transmutation’ process could speed up nuclear waste decay times from hundreds of years to days or even hours.”

Mourou has said that an industrial level laser could be operational in 10 or 15 years time, which could fundamentally change how the industry handles, and public perceives, nuclear waste.

Early Stages

Lengvinas admits that nuclear waste transmutation by using lasers is in a very early stage, and a lot of research needs to be done before commercialization. However, he adds that as more laser systems like SYLOS are constructed, the pace of research should increase.

“Talking of cost benefits is a bit too early,” says Lengvinas. “Burying is the most popular nuclear waste handling method currently. Laser transmutation potentially could be much more cost effective and environmentally friendly.”

Storage of nuclear waste from power plants costs billions of dollars every year. France is building an underground storage facility for its nuclear waste with an estimated cost of US$28 billion.

A 2015 report by GE-Hitachi estimated the cost of disposing of nuclear waste (outside of China, Russia and India) at more than US$100 billion. That waste could potentially be neutralized and made safe by laser systems like SYLOS.

As well as reducing or eliminating waste storage costs, the removal of nuclear waste from the energy debate could also be a game-changer for the industry as clean, safe, carbon-free solution.

Now Lengvinas says stakeholders need to come together to help commercialize the technology.

Road full of challenges

“We are producers of lasers and lasers themselves are not enough for transmutation,” says Lengvinas. “A more complex system (including laser, particle generator, waste transportation system, etc.) is necessary. Our target market would be scientific institutions developing such technologies or integrator companies integrating our lasers into their systems.”

“Strong cooperation between laser producers, the scientific community, integrator companies and nuclear energy companies will be needed to incorporate lasers into industrial nuclear waste transmutation systems.”

That road to commercialization could be a long one. Back in 2003, a German and British research team at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, raised similar hopes when they performed transmutation with the Vulcan laser.

They transformed a million atoms of Iodine-129 into Iodine-128 (with respective half-lives of 15.7 million years and 25 minutes).

Scott Birch