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Will non-thermal nuclear fusion be the Holy Grail of clean energy?

A study shows lasers could be key in achieving sustainability.

Will non-thermal nuclear fusion be the Holy Grail of clean energy?
Atom on abstract background. 3d illustration. iStock

Australia-based deep tech startup HB11 Energy has successfully exhibited what one of its physicist co-founders theoretically posited as a path to clean energy generation, utilizing high power, high precision lasers to start fusion reactions between hydrogen and boron-11 rather than heating hydrogen isotopes to hundred-million-degree temperatures.

The achievement came two years after the company had filed a patent application.

Using lasers instead of thermal fusion was something predicted in the 1970s at the University of New South Wales by Australian theoretical physicist and HB11 Energy co-founder, Heinrich Hora. It differs radically from most other fusion efforts which require the heating of hydrogen isotopes to millions of degrees.

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Nuclear fusion is the process of combining two or more distinct entities into a new whole. Fusion reactions constitute the fundamental energy process that powers of stars, including our Sun. The Sun accomplishes fusion by having a huge amount of hydrogen atoms that are superheated to tens of millions of degrees packed into plasma at its core. 

HB11 is using a different approach that takes advantage of recent advances in ultra-high powered "chirped pulse amplification" lasers that can produce power levels over 10 petawatts.

HB11’s first demonstration of hydrogen-boron laser fusion has produced 10 times more fusion reactions than expected and the company claims that it's now "the global frontrunner in the race to commercialize the holy grail of clean energy."

“Safe, clean, and abundant energy for the whole world”

Dr. Warren McKenzie, Founder, and MD of HB11 Energy said in a press release, "The demonstration of fusion reactions alone is incredibly exciting. But on top of this, the unexpectedly high number of reactions additionally gives us important information about how to optimize our technology to further increase the fusion energy we can create. Creating this fusion energy will achieve wonders in the way of safe, clean, and abundant energy for the whole world."

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The results show great potential for clean energy generation: hydrogen-boron reactions use fuels that are safe and abundant and don’t create neutrons in the primary reaction. In this way, they cause insignificant amounts of short-lived waste, and can provide large-scale power for base-load grid electricity or hydrogen generation.

McKenzie continued, “These findings take us one step closer to creating clean, safe, and reliable energy at better prices and in greater abundance than all the existing renewable energy sources combined. Our unique approach to large-scale clean electricity generation uses an aneutronic fusion reaction between hydrogen and boron-11 that does not use any radioactive fuels or generate uncontrollable radioactive waste. Achieving this on a large scale would be a gamechanger”.

Let’s see if these groundbreaking results will lead to scalable clean energy and help us reverse the effects of global warming caused by climate change.

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Abstract

Nuclear reactions between protons and boron-11 nuclei (p–B fusion) that were used to yield energetic α-particles were initiated in a plasma that was generated by the interaction between a PW-class laser operating at relativistic intensities (~3 × 1019 W/cm2) and a 0.2-mm thick boron nitride (BN) target. A high p–B fusion reaction rate and hence, a large α-particle flux was generated and measured, thanks to a proton stream accelerated at the target’s front surface. This was the first proof of principle experiment to demonstrate the efficient generation of α-particles (~1010/sr) through p–B fusion reactions using a PW-class laser in the “in-target” geometry.

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