For what has been quite literally a century, we’ve been hearing about the elusive “nuclear fusion” – the process by which stars, including our sun, create incredible amounts of energy by fusing different nuclei into other atoms. Nuclear fusion promises to create clean energy without the potential destructive side-effects of nuclear fission that we’re more familiar with.
The two methods of extracting energy from nuclear material are slightly different. Fission generates power by splitting atoms and harnessing the released energy. Fusion, on the other hand, accomplishes the same goal by fusing the nucleus of one element’s atom into that of another, which produces far more energy.
Since the 1940s, development on nuclear fusion has stalled due to one technical setback: it requires insanely high temperatures, even higher than that of the sun’s surface, in the tens of millions of degrees. This has lead to the old running joke in the physics community that “Fusion is just 20 years away and it always will be.”
Enter HB11 Energy, a start-up from the University of New South Wales that claims to have made a breakthrough that bypasses the aforementioned setback. On February 20, the University of New South Wales published a press release celebrating their fusion spin-out’s success in securing key patents in the US, China and Japan.
Okay, but how?
The US patent mentions “fusion laser pulses”, “a magnetic field within a cylindrical reaction chamber” and perhaps more interestingly, “power of more than 1 petawatt.” If you’re wondering what a petawatt is, it’s a lot. Peta is a million gigas.
For some context; according to World Factbook’s statistics from 2016, the total annual energy expenditure of the United States was 3.9 petawatt hours. China came in second with 5.8 petawatt hours. According to the same source, 70% of that expenditure comes from fossil fuels. Only 9% came from nuclear sources, in the case of the US.
HB11’s approach builds on the research of Professor Heinrich Hora, which opts for the use of hydrogen and boron B-11. Not only are they much less rare and radioactive than traditional fusion materials, they also don’t require those high temperatures. This allows them to use a “deceptively simple” process with highly precise lasers that start the fusion reaction.
Dr. Warren McKenzie, Managing Director at HB11, explained it nicely. It’s essentially “using the hydrogen as a dart” that is then accelerated by the lasers through the boron sample. “We are sidestepping all of the scientific challenges that have held fusion energy back for more than half a century.”
The lasers are based on cutting-edge “Chriped Pulse Amplification” technology, which won the 2018 Nobel prize in Physics. “This is brand new,” Hora said. “It’s been shown that you can create fusion conditions without hundreds of millions of degrees.”
HB11’s generators are expected to be safe and compact. They produce no nuclear waste, risk of meltdown or destruction caused by high energy.