Sydney-based deep tech startup HB11 Energy has successfully shown what one of its physicist co-founders proved theoretically as a path to clean energy generation, using a laser to demonstrate a "material" number of fusion reactions between hydrogen and boron-11.
More energy was created than predicted from the process, taking the HB11 team one step closer to the net energy gain goal that has proven elusive to the international hydrogen nuclear fusion sector to date.
Unlike other fusion projects around the world whereby hydrogen isotopes are heated to millions of degrees, costing billions of dollars, HB11's method - based on an idea from co-founder Professor Heinrich Hora - is non-thermal.
The company emphasises its method does not use any radioactive fuels or generate uncontrollable radioactive waste. This is because neutrons are not created in the primary reaction; a process that only causes "insignificant amounts of short-lived waste".
The company's world-first results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Applied Sciences, with the experiment producing 10 times more fusion reactions than expected based on earlier experiments at the same facility.
"This is the first fusion result from any fusion company," HB11 co-founder and managing director Dr Warren McKenzie tells Business News Australia.
"And there are a lot of fusion companies that have raised billions and billions of dollars. None of them have got this - it's an 'Australians putting the Australian flag on the moon before the US and Russia get in' kind of thing," he says.
"We’ve got a lot of the science to understand, but if we can actually get to net energy gains the engineering challenges are a lot easier."
McKenzie tells Business News Australia the company has commenced a Series A funding round aiming for US$20 million ($26.7 million), and has recruited former CSIRO head of commercialisation Ellen Gorissen as its general manager commercial to lead the process.
This comes just over a year after an oversubscribed $4.8 million pre-seed raise last February, which was followed by a $2 million Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant announced in August.
The co-founder describes the scientific achievement alone as incredibly exciting, but the positive surprises that arose have further implications for technological development.
"The unexpectedly high number of reactions additionally gives us important information about how to optimise our technology to further increase the fusion energy we can create," says McKenzie, who was a finalist at the Sydney Young Entrepreneur Awards 2020.
"Creating this fusion energy will achieve wonders in the way of safe, clean, and abundant energy for the whole world.
For nuclear fusion to have commercial applications, it must create a net energy gain whereby the energy output of a reaction significantly exceeds the energy input required to catalyse it.
HB11 Energy’s research demonstrated that its hydrogen-boron energy technology is now four orders of magnitude away from achieving net energy gain when catalysed by a laser. This is many orders of magnitude higher than those reported by any other fusion company, most of which have not generated any reaction.
"To recover a kilojoule worth of laser pulse we need about 10 to the power of 15 helium atoms, but once we get to a net energy gain of 100 we’re starting to compete with what today’s energy prices are," McKenzie says.
"With every order of magnitude more reaction rates that you get, the price of energy will come down."
The project was performed at the LFEX petawatt laser facility at Osaka University in Japan due to a lack of a local high-power laser facility, meaning Australia has a long way to go in creating sovereign capability in this critical industry, according to HB11 Energy.
"These findings take us one step closer to creating clean, safe, and abundant energy at better prices and in greater abundance than all the existing renewable energy sources combined," McKenzie explains.
"Our unique approach to large-scale clean electricity generation uses an aneutronic fusion reaction between hydrogen and boron-11 that does not use any radioactive fuels or generate uncontrollable radioactive waste," he says.
"Achieving this on a large scale would be a game-changer, but to do this locally we will need significant investment in our sovereign capability, including having a petawatt laser in Australia."
HB11 Energy’s result comes only days before the National Ignition Facility (NIF) published a demonstration of a fusion burn after more than a decade of research at the multi-billion dollar US Government-funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The NIF is also a laser-driven fusion effort, although it uses radioactive fuel capsules that are highly engineered and which HB11 claims may not be practical for energy generation.
Professor Tom Melhorn, an Adjunct Professor at University of Michigan who sits on HB11's scientific advisory board, reiterates the significance of the breakthrough.
"HB11 Energy’s approach to fusion is novel in that it uses ultrashort pulse lasers, which were invented in 1985 and recognized by the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, to initiate reactions between hydrogen and boron," he says.
"It is exciting that, since 2005, several experiments using ultrashort pulse lasers have achieved meaningful reactions, including this one. HB11 Energy's recent result is particularly important and significant because it is the first time a commercial entity has demonstrated a meaningful fusion reaction using this approach.
"A key difference between HB11 Energy and other approaches to fusion is that the proton-boron reaction produces alpha particles, while most others use the deuterium-tritium reaction that produces neutrons."
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