Published on December 14th, 2017 | by Tina Casey0
Free Lunch Alert! A Hydrogen – Boron Solution For “Clean” Nuclear Fusion
December 14th, 2017 by Tina Casey
Oh come on, where’s the catch? Researchers at the University of New South Wales have described how a laser-enabled system can coax nuclear energy out of a reaction between hydrogen and boron, without generating nuclear waste. The patented system has already been spun off to an Australian startup called HB11 Energy.
Of course there is a catch. HB11 is optimistically looking at a ten-year timeline for developing a prototype reactor — and that’s assuming any significant obstacles don’t rear up as the research progresses. Considering the rapid pace of global warming, the new fusion technology is not exactly a handy solution for the global warming crisis.
On the other hand, the nations of the Earth — well, except for you-know-who — are committed to accelerating the clean energy transition, so optimistically speaking a new hydrogen/boron nuclear fusion reactor could come in handy some time in the sparkling green future.
Let’s Hear It For The Nuclear Fusion Unicorn
For those of you new to the topic, fission is the idea behind conventional nuclear energy generation. That’s when isotopes of certain elements, typically Uranium-235, are “split” to release energy in the form of heat.
Fusion is practically the opposite. Think of creating a miniature sun on Earth, and you’re on the right track. The idea is to smash nuclei together and literally fuse them. The process releases energy in the form of heat. Unlike nuclear fission (and fossil fuels, for that matter), the fuel would be virtually self-sustaining.
For you hydrogen fans, the good news is salt and water (H2O amirite?) are the only necessary ingredients, and helium is the only byproduct. Among other fuel sources the US Energy Department is looking at deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that can be derived from seawater.
The Hydrogen – Boron Nuclear Energy Solution
Currently the global fusion research community is focused on studying fusion reactions in specialized (and quite expensive) chambers called tokamaks.
A core part of the problem is firing up the reactor with enough heat to sustain the operation, while generating more energy output than input. The University of South Wale sets the table:
…the downside has always been that this needs much higher temperatures and densities – almost 3 billion degrees Celsius, or 200 times hotter than the core of the Sun.
That’s where the new study comes in. For all the details check out the paper “Road map to clean energy using laser beam ignition of boron-hydrogen fusion” in the journal Laser and Particle Beams. Here’s the short version: skip the deuterium and go straight to the hydrogen. Here’s a snippet from the abstract:
Sixty years of worldwide research for the ignition of the heavy hydrogen isotopes deuterium (D) and tritium (T) have come close to a breakthrough for ignition. The problem with the DT fusion is that generated neutrons are producing radioactive waste. One exception as the ideal clean fusion process – without neutron production – is the fusion of hydrogen (H) with the boron isotope 11B11 (B11).
The University of New South Wales explains where the lasers come in:
Rather than heat fuel to the temperature of the Sun using massive, high-strength magnets to control superhot plasmas inside a doughnut-shaped toroidal chamber (as in NIF and ITER), hydrogen-boron fusion is achieved using two powerful lasers in rapid bursts, which apply precise non-linear forces to compress the nuclei together.
The new study pulls together “a spate of recent experiments around the world” indicating that “an ‘avalanche’ fusion reaction could be triggered in the trillionth-of-a-second blast from a petawatt-scale laser pulse, whose fleeting bursts pack a quadrillion watts of power…”
The study cites current research that confirms earlier theoretical work and takes it to the next level, according to lead researcher Heinrich Hora, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of New South Wales.
According to Hora, the research has produced measurements that indicate the “avalanche” or chain reaction touched off by lasers creates “one billion-fold higher energy output than predicted under thermal equilibrium conditions.”
For the record, the international effort involved in creating the new study also included:
…Shalom Eliezer of Israel’s Soreq Nuclear Research Centre; Jose M. Martinez-Val from Spain’s Polytechnique University in Madrid; Noaz Nissim from University of California, Berkeley; Jiaxiang Wang of East China Normal University; Paraskevas Lalousis of Greece’s Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser; and George Miley at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
What’s Up With The USA?
As hinted by the lineup in Hora’s research team, the US is one of the leading centers of nuclear fusion research. However, they better act fast if they want to maintain their global status.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the US is running neck and neck with Russia and Japan, and several other countries are coming up fast including China and Brazil.
Meanwhile, the US may have a head start on sustainable hydrogen production, partly with an assist from the US Department of Defense. The US Navy is already interested in generating hydrogen from ordinary seawater as an oceangoing fuel source for submarines, with a carbon capture bonus as well.
Researchers are also tumbling over themselves to develop commercial-grade systems for powering water-to-hydrogen systems with renewable energy including solar, wind and biomass, so stay tuned for more on that.
Image: via National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA.