by Chelsea Gohd December 15, 2017 Earth & Energy
In Brief
Despite many varied and valiant attempts, fusion energy has remained out of reach. One new technique uses hydrogen-boron reactions to theoretically achieve fusion in a way that produces no radioactive waste.

Fusion Energy

For decades, fusion energy has been an impossible-seeming solution to our energy problems. But creating fusion energy, and doing so without radioactive fuel elements has seemed to many too good to be true, until now. Lead author Heinrich Hora, an emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney and an international team of researchers has developed a laser-based technique that creates fusion without any radioactive waste.

As described in the researchers’ paper, which is published in the scientific journal Laser and Particle Beams, the team found that it is possible to create fusion through hydrogen-boron reactions using two powerful lasers in rapid bursts. These laser bursts apply precise non-linear forces which compresses the nuclei together. This technique is far different from previous attempts in which high-strength magnets were used in a toroidal chamber to heat radioactive fuel to the temperature of the Sun.

According to Hora, who predicted in the 1970’s that fusion might be possible with hydrogen and boron and without the need to reach thermal equilibrium, “I think this puts our approach ahead of all other fusion energy technologies.”

While fusion has not yet been achieved using this technique, international collaborators and experts have weighed in on the study and think that fusion is entirely possible using hydrogen-boron reactions.

Laser-Driven

One major positive aspect of creating fusion with hydrogen-boron reactions, besides that so far it is theoretically possible, is that it produces no neutrons in its primary reaction. This means that it doesn’t produce any radioactivity.

Fusion energy is often criticized, not only for its potential application as a realistic and viable source of energy, but because of its potential to cause enormous amounts of radioactive waste. Even if everything went according to plan, previous techniques could have amounted in dangerous, excessive, radioactive waste. So even if creating fusion with this technique turns out to be less than an ideal method, it will at least be much safer and less wasteful. Additionally, because of the materials used, this technique could be a lot easier to replicate, Hora explained, “From an engineering perspective, our approach will be a much simpler project because the fuels and waste are safe, the reactor won’t need a heat exchanger and steam turbine generator, and the lasers we need can be bought off the shelf.”

Fusion Energy: A Practical Guide [Infographic]
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Hora was excited not only about the initial success of this research, but also the potential for this technique to create much more energy than previous methods, “It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations. Not just because it proves some of my earlier theoretical work, but they have also measured the laser-initiated chain reaction to create one billion-fold higher energy output than predicted under thermal equilibrium conditions.”

Hora and other researchers still have a long road ahead of them between the publication of this work and the creation of fusion energy. However, as the team moves forward with research it is important to note that this is a positive step forward in terms of our energy future. There doesn’t seem to be a possible future in which fossil fuel is still our primary fuel source. And so continued investment and exploration of alternative energy sources that are renewable and do not cause emissions will pull this movement and other such legitimate efforts to curb climate change.