The holy grail of clean cheap energy from nuclear fusion has seen many false starts.
The cold fusion fiasco of twenty years ago sent scientists and potential investors fleeing towards the door. Even the “conventional” approaches to fusion energy will require enormous amounts of energy, and if they work, still produce large amounts of dangerous radiation.
But a recent paper in the journal, "Energy and Environmental Science" indicates that radiation-free fusion energy might be closer than we thought. The secret? A little bit of boron, and a very large laser.
Emeritus Prof. Heinrich Hora of the Department of Theoretical Physics at the University of New South Wales hopes to utilize the new generation of enormously powerful lasers now under development at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. These can generate an extremely short pulse of light that equals 1,000 times the generating capacity of the Unites States.
These massive lasers are being investigated as a way to ignite a hydrogen target to kick off the fusion reaction in a technique called “inertial confinement fusions” (ICF).
First proposed back in the 1960’s, ICF has been considered a long-shot in comparison to other strategies that employ massive magnets to achieve fusion, such as the €10 billion ITER project in France that is planned to be switched on by 2018.
The problem with all these methods (besides the astronomical cost) is that “clean” fusion isn’t all that clean. Re-creating conditions at the centre of our sun is not only a daunting task – it would result in a chain reaction producing dangerous neutron radiation.
That’s where the work Dr. Hora comes in. He investigated whether the massive lasers now under development in the US could instead ignite a hydrogen target that also included boron, which would virtually eliminate all radiation from the reaction.
To his surprise, his computer models showed that this process was not nearly as hard as everyone thought it was.
According to the CBC:
Hora's team originally rejected the idea of a hydrogen-boron fuel for their simulations "because the higher temperatures and compression needed made it a hundred thousand times more difficult than the Lawrence Livermore approach, making it just about impossible."
"But when we ran computer simulations using these next generation petawatt (quadrillion watt) strength lasers with a hydrogen-boron fuel, we were shocked to find that it's only 10 times more difficult than deuterium-tritium," he said.
"It makes this all within the reach of current technology in a relatively short time. In fact these types of lasers are already in early testing at Los Alamos National Laboratory," he said.
This technique might open the door for clean cheap and unlimited power that would actually have less radiation emissions than many plants that burn coal, “which contains trace amounts of uranium," said Hora.
It would also reduce the effort needed to prepare the fuel source. "The hydrogen-boron fuel would not have to be compressed. This means it needs far less energy to start the ignition," he said.
According to Hora’s recent paper,
This provides an exciting vision of a very attractive sustainable future power plant for worldwide use. Its achievement will depend on continued advances in laser optics, target physics and power conversion technology. However, the studies reported here show that such a system is rather close at hand—something not realized before, since [boron] ignition had always been viewed as virtually impossible.
How close are we now to realizing controlled fusion? Researchers at Lawrence Livermore hope to power up their laser-powered plasma reactor as early as this summer. The research by Hora and his team may open the door for this technique to lead to commercially available clean fusion faster than anyone thought.
Don’t sell your solar stocks any time soon but this promising new development could be a game-changer a decade or two down the road.
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