The quest for large-scale sustainable energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen as a nearly limitless and radical alternative power source has been around for more than six decades now, but the daunting scientific and engineering challenges in developing nuclear fusion of very light nuclei – an extremely intense, clean and hard to replicate process that powers the entire solar system including our sun, have precluded significant research. Until now.
In a paper published in the scientific journal Laser and Particle Beams, an international research team led by Heinrich Hora, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at UNSW Sydney, argue that they are very close to perfecting a laser-driven system that can create nuclear energy out of a reaction between hydrogen and boron, a fusion process that produces no neutrons in its primary reaction and therefore generates power without the radioactive waste of nuclear fission.
Hora and his colleagues contend that unlike other fusion processes, such as the deuterium-tritium process proposed by the U.S. Ignition Facility, a method that despite the radioactive waste aspect, and based on its proton-neutron unstable configuration is the easiest to achieve among all possible fusion reactions, part of what’s made an hydrogen-boron fusion technique neither viable nor implementable so far, is that in order for it to work properly the reaction needs to reach temperatures that are 200x hotter than the Sun’s core, almost 3 billion degrees Celsius.
To generate these kind of temperatures, the UNSW team has come up with a system that unlike previous experimental methods that consisted of having very high-strength magnets controlling superhot plasmas inside donut-shaped vacuum chambers called tokamaks, Hora’s system relies instead on rapid bursts from two extremely high intensity lasers that apply precise non-linear forces, powerful enough to compress and fuse the hydrogen and boron nuclei together, with energy as a byproduct.
Hora, who in the 1970s predicted the possibility of fusing hydrogen and boron without needing thermal equilibrium, said in a statement, “I think this puts our approach ahead of all other fusion energy technologies.”
In fact, recent experiments performed with lasers suggest that an “avalanche” fusion reaction could be triggered in the trillionth-of-a-second with bursts of a petawatt-scale laser pulse packing a quadrillion watts of power. Hora, who’s currently working together with 10 colleagues spread over six countries, believes that a breakthrough in proton-boron fusion is imminent if scientists would exploit the avalanche approach which makes hydrogen-boron reactions easier to ignite.
“It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations. Not just because it proves some of my earlier theoretical work, but they have also measured the laser-initiated chain reaction to create one billion-fold higher energy output than predicted under thermal equilibrium conditions,” Hora said.
While there is still work to be done, if future research doesn’t reveal any major engineering hurdles, scientists, including HB11 Energy, an Australian startup that holds the patents for Hora’s ideas, predict that the development of a practical reactor that will bring us closer than ever before to the promise of cleaner, safer and unlimited nuclear energy could be possible within a decade.