Laser-driven system for creating fusion power now within reach

Posted Dec 14, 2017 by Karen Graham
Scientists have been searching for over 60 years for a way to produce large-scale sustainable energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen and other very light nuclei similar to the energy source of the sun, but there may be a better way.
Artist s impression of the core of a laser-ignited hydrogen-boron fusion reactor..
Artist's impression of the core of a laser-ignited hydrogen-boron fusion reactor..
UNSW Sydney
Instead of worrying about the generation of radioactive pollution from the heating of isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) to many millions of degrees to get a reaction similar to the nuclear fusion that heats the sun, a laser-driven technique that dispenses with radioactive materials and leaves no radioactive waste is now within reach, say researchers.
As a matter of fact, some dramatic advances in powerful, high-intensity lasers are now making it possible for pursuing what was once thought to be impossible - Creating fusion energy based on hydrogen-boron reactions. An Australian physicist has already patented the new system, creating an Australian startup called HB11 Energy.
The central core of the large laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device of the Nationa...
The central core of the large laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device of the National Ignition Facility in the USA.
UNSW Sydnet
In a paper published in the journal Laser and Particle Beams, lead author Heinrich Hora from UNSW Sydney and international colleagues argue that the path to hydrogen-boron fusion is now viable, coming closer to fruition than the deuterium-tritium fusion approach being pursued by U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF) or the ITER project under construction in France.
"I think this puts our approach ahead of all other fusion energy technologies," said Hora, who predicted in the 1970s that fusing hydrogen and boron might be possible without the need for thermal equilibrium.
Hora says that rather than using huge high-strength magnets to control superhot plasmas inside a doughnut-shaped toroidal chamber, hydrogen-boron fusion (HB fusion) is achieved using two powerful lasers in rapid bursts, which apply precise non-linear forces to compress the nuclei together.
Schematic of a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor.
Schematic of a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor.
UNSW Sydney
Hydrogen-Boron Fusion
The study cites “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…”
Now, that is hard to wrap one's mind around.
According to Hora, the measurements produced by the experiments created a chain-reaction that produced “one billion-fold higher energy output than predicted under thermal equilibrium conditions. It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations, " he added.
The great part about hydrogen-boron fusion is that unlike coal, gas and nuclear, which rely on heating liquids like water to drive turbines, energy generated by hydrogen-boron fusion converts directly into electricity. But one hurdle has to be overcome.
UNSW s Heinrich Hora (centre) visiting Shanghai Guangji University in 2014.
UNSW's Heinrich Hora (centre) visiting Shanghai Guangji University in 2014.
UNSW Sydney
To get this reaction, much higher temperatures and densities are needed - almost 3 billion degrees Celsius, or 200 times hotter than the core of the Sun. This problem is what Hora claims can be overcome using laser fusion. Hora had an international team helping him with this research.
The team 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.