A new study has detailed how a laser-driven system can create "clean" nuclear reactions by drawing energy out of a hydrogen-boron fusion. This system does not generate nuclear waste and does not require radioactive fuel, and if everything goes according to plan, a prototype reactor could be ready for use within the next 10 years.
Hydrogen-boron fusion has long been considered by scientists as a way to produce nuclear reactions without any harmful waste, as it does not produce any neutrons, thereby eliminating the possibility of radioactivity. According to Science Alert, the fact that this technique requires temperatures about 200 times hotter than our sun's core has made it "out of reach" for researchers in the past. But as detailed in the new study published earlier this week in the journal Laser and Particle Beams, researchers were able to leverage super-strength laser bursts to generate such extreme temperatures and facilitate clean nuclear reactions by compressing hydrogen and boron nuclei.
"It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations," said University of New South Wales professor and lead researcher Heinrich Hora in a statement.
"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."As explained by Science Alert, fusion reactions have shown a lot of promise in recent years, offering a potential source of clean energy and an alternative to conventional nuclear fission reactions. Atoms are blended, instead of split, with lighter nuclei fused together to create heavier ones. The publication also noted that such techniques produce effects not unlike the reactions that power our sun.
While scientists have long struggled to come up with clean nuclear reactions, Hora and his team achieved success in simulations and experiments by using the latest laser technology to create what is called an "avalanche" fusion reaction. This required a high-end laser beam fueled by a quadrillion watts of power, with the reaction taking place in only a trillionth of a second.
Thanks to the efforts of Hora and his colleagues, the new hydrogen-boron technique is now ahead of other similar systems, such as the U.S. National Ignition Facility's deuterium-tritium fusion. This technique, however, does not necessarily create clean nuclear reactions, as it is known to produce nuclear waste.
At the moment, the future looks bright for the new hydrogen-boron system, though it's not guaranteed that clean nuclear reactions will be created in actual practice in the near future. According to Clean Technica, the system has been patented and spun off to Australian company HB11 Energy, and while there is an "optimistic" 10-year timeline to create a prototype reactor, there are potential challenges that could lead to hitches and delays in the coming years. These include the unabated pace of global warming, which Clean Technica noted could prevent the fusion technology from being a plausible solution to the ongoing warming problem.
Possible challenges aside, HB11 is confident that the new hydrogen-boron fusion would offer significant benefits through the clean nuclear reactions it produces.
"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," explained HB11 managing director Warren McKenzie, as quoted by Science Alert.