Science 3 min read

How Lasers Could Solve a Global Nuclear Waste Problem

2018 Nobel Prize physicist Gérard Mourou is working on a laser-based radical solution to reduce the radioactivity of nuclear waste within minutes.

If successful, this new method could entirely eradicate the harmful effects of nuclear waste within minutes. ¦ Pixabay

If successful, this new method could entirely eradicate the harmful effects of nuclear waste within minutes. ¦ Pixabay

Gérard Albert Mourou, a French physicist, was one of three laureates who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics.

He shared half the Nobel prize with Donna Strickland for their invention of a technique called Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) that pushes the envelope of laser physics.

The Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) method — that Mourou and his former student Strickland started developing back in 1980s — generates ultrashort high-intensity pulses of lasers without damaging the amplifying material.

High-energy and extremely short laser pulses based on CPA technique have many applications in medicine, astronomy, and electronics.

However, one idea by which Mourou sets great store is using amplified laser pulses to reduce nuclear waste radioactivity.

Transmutation: Laser Sweeping Radioactivity

Basically, nuclear energy is the intense heat generated when splitting uranium atoms through nuclear fission.

Nuclear power technology allows for the production of cheap electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions. But a dangerous byproduct of burning uranium in nuclear facilities is radioactive waste.

Currently, the safest solution to manage radioactive wastes is disposing it deep underground or in surface facilities, a practice that’s as heavily regulated as it’s criticized.

But Mourou has another idea that he’s been mulling over ever since devising his CPA technique.

In his Nobel lecture, Mourou spoke about his “passion for extreme light” and his vision to use laser pulses to treat nuclear waste.

“Nuclear energy is maybe the best candidate for the future, but we are still left with a lot of dangerous junk. The idea is to transmute this nuclear waste into new forms of atoms which don’t have the problem of radioactivity. What you have to do is to change the makeup of the nucleus,”

Mourou.

Through a process he calls “transmutation”, Mourou believes the lifespan of radioactivity can be brought from several thousands of years to a few minutes.

“Take the nucleus of an atom. It is made up of protons and neutrons,” Mourou explains. “ If we add or take away a neutron, it changes absolutely everything. It is no longer the same atom, and its properties will completely change. The lifespan of nuclear waste is fundamentally changed, and we could cut this from a million years to 30 minutes!”

To bring his vision to fruition, Mourou said he’s collaborating with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and thinks “that in 10 or 15 years’ time we will have something we can demonstrate”.

Read More: Why is no one Talking About LENR Cold Fusion?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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