- Could the key to nuclear fusion be a low-temperature reactor with no radioactive fuel or waste?
- Startup HB11 joins other groups seeking to shift our nuclear paradigm altogether.
- In HB11s reactor, lasers collide hydrogen and boron together to generate charged helium atoms.
Scientists in Australia are making some astonishing claims about a new nuclear reactor technology. Startup HB11, which spun out of the University of New South Wales, has applied for and received patents in the U.S., Japan, and China so far. The company's technology uses lasers to trigger a nuclear fusion reaction in hydrogen and boron—purportedly with no radioactive fuel required. The secret is a cutting-edge laser and, well, an element of luck.
The laser doesn’t heat the materials. Instead, it speeds up the hydrogen to the point where it (hopefully) collides with the boron to begin a reaction.
“You could say we're using the hydrogen as a dart, and hoping to hit a boron, and if we hit one, we can start a fusion reaction,” managing director Warren McKenzie told New Atlas. He says HB11's approach is “more precise” than designs that use heat to approach fusion because in those reactors, everything is heated in the hope that something will collide.
When the lucky hydrogen does fuse with a boron particle, the reaction throws off helium atoms whose lack of electrons means they’re positively charged. It’s this charge that the device gathers as electricity.
The overall idea was developed by UNSW emeritus professor Heinrich Hora, who says in a statement he’s been “investigating a laser-boron fusion approach for over four decades at UNSW.”
The laser itself is a landmark invention as well—without it, Hora could likely not have created a working idea and patented it after those four decades of research. In 2018, three scientists split the Nobel Prize in Physics for the decades-old chirped pulse laser, including the first woman recipient since Marie Curie. From Donna Strickland’s 1988 thesis on the idea of chirped pulse amplification, the chirped pulse laser has revolutionized all the things we think of as laser-powered today, like medical treatments and ultrafast laser image captures of atoms in motion.
Hora’s design seeks to not just compete with, but replace entirely the extremely high-temperature current technologies to achieve fusion. These include fussy and volatile designs like the tokamak or stellarator, which can take months to get up to functionality and still spin out of working order in a matter of microseconds.
What Hora and McKenzie are hyping has a whiff of The Music Man by comparison, but they say they’ve just found an elegant solution to a technology that has puzzled the greatest minds in energy physics for decades. Instead of literal translations of “the sun is a fusion reactor”—where we actually induce materials to the same temperature as the sun—this is an entirely different approach to the idea of fusion itself.
“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,” Hora says in the statement. McKenzie adds, “This means our development roadmap will be much faster and cheaper than any other fusion approach."
Indeed, in nuclear development, nothing is fast—but if this reactor works the way the scientists say it does, it could change everything.
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