Peter Norreys

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Peter Norreys

Professor of Physics

Peter Norreys is Professor of Inertial Fusion Science at the University of Oxford and is an Individual Merit Fellow of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. He completed his second term as Divisional Associate Editor of Physical Review Letters in January 2017.

He graduated from Royal Holloway College, University of London, in 1989 and spent one year as a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Post-Doctoral Fellow at Osaka University Japan. He joined the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in 1990 on his return to the United Kingdom and has been involved in the study of relativistically intense laser-plasma interactions since then.

He was awarded the 2013 Institute of Physics' Payne-Gaposchkin Medal and Prize for his original contributions to relativistic laser-plasma interaction physics. He has also received the 2006 American Physical Society’s Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research for his contributions to inertial fusion science and, as UK team leader, the 2007 Daiwa Adrian Prize for UK-Japan collaborative investigations into new areas of high energy density science. He is currently William Penney Fellow of AWE, a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and of the American Physical Society and is a visiting Professor to Imperial College London.

Peter Norreys chairs the Department of Physics' Awards Committee, is Director of Graduate Studies in Atomic and Laser Physics, and is currently co-ordinator of the Oxford-Imperial-Warwick "Centre for Postgraduate Training in Plasma Physics and High Energy Density Science" course.

The need for new energy sources is pressing. Global warming and climate change mean that it is essential to reduce our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Renewable sources, such as solar, wind and tidal power, are unlikely to satisfy the world's ever-increasing energy needs over the coming decades. One alternative that has been pursued for some time is controlled thermonuclear fusion - the same energy source that powers the Sun. Fusion involves heating the fusion fuel, isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium), to tens of millions of degrees centigrade so that the nuclei can overcome their Coloumb repulsion and fuse together, via the strong nuclear force, to form helium nuclei and neutrons. Clearly, no vessel can withstand direct contact with matter at such temperatures and it has to be confined in some manner.

Laser beams have the capability of delivering enormous energy densities to target when they are focused to small spots. The electric field in the laser pulse focus can approach a billion volts per centimetre or more. Any material placed within a field of this magnitude will be ionised within one or two oscillations, generating hot dense plasma (defined as a cloud of charged particles that exhibit collective behaviour) almost instantaneously. The pressure associated with the generation of this plasma is enormous - millions of atmospheres. If laser pulses (or intense X-rays generated from close-by secondary sources) are applied to the outer surface of a spherical shell containing fusion fuel frozen onto its inner surface, plasma generated at the outer surface will rapidly expand into the surrounding vacuum, while the remainder of the shell implodes inwards at high velocity, in order to conserve momentum. This rocket effect compresses the fuel to high density and confines it due to its own inertia. At the same time that plasma is generated at the surface of the fuel, however, a strong shock is driven through the shell material before it starts to accelerate. If one allows a number of strong shocks of increasing amplitude to travel through the fusion fuel and to converge at the centre of the fuel close to peak compression, then it is possible to form a hot spot region, surrounded by much colder and denser fusion fuel region. The temperature and density in hot spot region causes deuterium and tritium to fuse there to produce alpha particles and neutrons. When sufficient numbers of alpha particles stop and release their energy inside the hot spot itself, then the plasma enters the self-heating/bootstrap regime. The next stage is when the heating begins to propagate into the surrounding fuel region, known as the burning regime. The ignition regime is entered when the heating starts to raise the temperature in the dense fuel to that of the hot spot itself. Finally, when the burn wave propagates throughout the fusion fuel and disassembles, it enters the full propagating burn / ignition regime.

Remarkable progress has been made over the past few years using the National Ignition Facility in the United States to explore this concept at full-scale. In 2014, scientists there have entered the hot-spot alpha particle self-heating regime for the first time. However, there are still physics uncertainties that need to be addressed to allow entry into the burning and ignition regimes. The strategic goal of my research is to determine how to enter these regimes for the first time. We are working on novel concepts to extend our understanding and predictive modellling capability. Clearly, the timetable for achieving this milestone is not certain, but in the next few years, we will gain a better understanding of the underlying physics, devise novel solutions to current barriers to entry into the hot-spot self-heating and thermonuclear burn regimes and experimentally test our hypotheses on the most advanced lasers in the world.

I am also working on new concepts in laser- and beam-driven particle accelerators, ultra-bright X-ray sources and physics at extreme intensities. My team is versatile and combine experiment, modelling and state-of-the-art computer simulations to explore these fascinating topics.

I chaired the International Conference on High Energy Density (ICHED) 2019 on behalf of the Institute of Physics' Plasma Physics group. The meeting was held 1st -5th April 2019 at my College, University College Oxford.


Over 110 delegates from all over the world attended. They discussed the latest results in Inertial Confinement Fusion, laboratory plasma astrophysics, warm dense matter, relativistic laser-plasma interactions and high energy density plasma physics. A special dinner was held in honour of Prof Steven Rose. Delegates had plenty of time for meetings, informal networking and discussions over the course of the week and, as a result, many new collaborations were formed.

Image is reproduced courtesy of Jonathan Oldfield, UKRI-STFC.

I have been the Director of Graduate Studies in Atomic and Laser Physics since 2015. In this role, I am responsible for the recruitment, training and progression of the 70 graduate students enrolled in the DPhil course. In the MPLS student barometer survey for the years 2015 - 2019, Atomic and Laser Physics is ranked third in the six sub-departments of Oxford Physics by graduating students, with an average satisfaction mark of 90%. We aspire to be among the top-ranked in the MPLS and welcome suggestions from all students and post-doctoral research fellows on ways to improve the graduate student experience.

Atomic and Laser Physics takes its commitment to Diversity and Equality very seriously. This year, we have a 57% male - 43% female student enrolment in 2020/21. Harassment, bullying, and micro-aggressions are strongly discouraged in Atomic and Laser Physics, and any discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability is taken very seriously. Members of all under-represented groups are welcome, and LGBTQ+ students are fully supported.