Australian scientists are tantalisingly close to developing the holy grail of clean energy, using high-powered lasers to fuse boron and hydrogen atoms together to generate electricity without any emissions or toxic waste.
A team of scientists at the University of NSW is developing the hydrogen-boron fusion technology, which is said to hold the promise of limitless, cheap baseload electricity with virtually no carbon dioxide emissions and zero radioactive waste. The only waste product is helium.
The pioneer of the technology, Heinrich Hora, said: “The clean and absolutely safe reactor can be placed within densely populated areas, with no possibility of a catastrophic meltdown such as that which has been seen with nuclear fission reactors.” Boron is cheap and naturally abundant, with sufficient known reserves to power the world for thousands of years.
Patents for the technology have been granted in the US, Japan and China to UNSW spin-out company HB11 Energy.
The research, which was conceived by Emeritus Professor Hora, has been under way for more than four decades.
It is a genuine moonshot on the pathway to a low-emissions world. If successful, it will follow UNSW’s other success in transformative energy technology with solar photovoltaics.
Professor Hora said Scott Morrison’s comments and a business group target of $22bn a year for investment in new technology represented “a new direction” in tackling climate change.
The government is planning to release a technology road map that will include advances in carbon capture and storage and other emissions technologies. Work is also progressing on a coal-to-hydrogen project based on Victoria’s brown coal reserves, with delivery of a hydrogen refining plant to AGL’s Loy Yang facility in the Latrobe Valley.
The plant will be used as part of a pilot phase of the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain project, a world first to establish the feasibility of supplying clean hydrogen from export from Victoria.
Fusion research has attracted billions of dollars in funding around the world. Many are claiming to be on the verge of a breakthrough similar to that of the UNSW team. However, others believe the technology is 30 years away.
Professor Hora said advances in laser technology had been the key to realising his theories of how to produce fusion energy without the massive amounts of heat needed by other approaches.
The laser technology’s developers, Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018.
With patents in place, HB11 will seek funding for final testing and development of a prototype. If all goes well, developers expect a pilot plant could be built within five years. The company will seek $1m for preliminary testing over 12 months. A further $5m would be needed over two years for international research collaborations to achieve experimental proof of concept. A pilot fusion electricity generator would require a further $80m.
“After investigating a laser-boron fusion approach for over four decades at UNSW, I am thrilled that this pioneering approach has now received patents in three countries,” Professor Hora said.
“These granted patents represent the eve of HB11 Energy’s seed-stage fundraising campaign that will establish Australia’s first commercial fusion company, and the world’s only approach focused on the safe hydrogen – boron reaction using lasers.”
Professor Hora said his reactor design was simple: a largely empty metal sphere, where a modestly sized HB11 fuel pellet is held in the centre, with apertures for the two lasers. One laser establishes the magnetic containment field for the plasma and the second triggers the “avalanche” fusion chain reaction.
A statement by UNSW said the alpha particles generated by the reaction would create an electrical flow that could be channelled almost directly into an existing power grid with no need for a heat exchanger or steam turbine generator.
HB11 Energy managing director Warren McKenzie said the approach could be the only way to achieve very low carbon emissions by 2050.
“As we aren’t trying to heat fuels to impossibly high temperatures, we are sidestepping all of the scientific challenges that have held fusion energy back for more than half a century,” Dr McKenzie said.