“Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to another in order for stars to shine, planets to rotate, plants to grow, and civilisations to evolve” – Vaclav Smil.
The co-founder of Australian deep-tech startup HB11 Energy has likened a recent nuclear fusion breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California as equivalent to a "first moon landing" for the global energy industry, coinciding with the Sydney-founded company bringing global lasertech heavyweights to Australian soil in pursuit of building sovereign capacity in the yet-to-be-commercial field.
Fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. One of the biggest struggles with it is the challenge of achieving a net energy gain, in addition to issues such as practicality, high temperatures, safety, transmission capability and waste, depending on the method used.
Researchers at the NIF - a sports stadium-sized facility the uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures like those in the cores of stars and giant planets - were able to deliver 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output by heating the fuel with lasers.
This is a very small gain, but marks an exciting step for the capital intensive, research-driven industry.
HB11 Energy has been working towards the audacious net energy goal through a non-thermal fusion process with hydrogen and boron developed by co-founder Professor Heinrich Hora, and in May this year the company was granted a $22 million project to help develop Australia’s sovereign nuclear fusion energy capabilities.
That boost came just two months after then world-first results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Applied Sciences proving HB11 Energy had used a laser to successfully demonstrate a "material" number of fusion reactions between hydrogen and boron-11.
Amidst global energy challenges that have come to bear in 2022, and societal pressures to wean off fossil fuels, the imperative to explore energy alternatives has never been greater. In response, HB11 Energy has created a coalition of global laser technology heavyweights to kickstart a new Australian laser industry, including by developing an ultra high intensity petawatt-class laser facility on Australian soil.
This consortium will see Australia pioneer many new areas of technology, including clean fusion energy generation, sovereign advanced manufacturing capability, and Ultrashort & Short Pulse Laser (USPL) education and talent.
The coalition will include, among others, engineering multinational Thales Group, Japan’s first-ever laser fusion company EX-Fusion, the University of Adelaide, long-time global leaders in high-energy laser science the Institute of Laser Engineering Osaka University, engineering firm BECA, and laser component manufacturer Southern Photonics.
The goals of the coalition are to:
- Achieve Australian petawatt laser capability, as an internationally significant research infrastructure investment;
- Build the partners’ capabilities for participation in large scientific partnerships, including public-private-partnerships (PPPs) for laser fusion energy;
- Develop applications for Ultrashort & Short Pulse Laser (USPL) systems, including directed energy and laser fusion for clean energy generation;
- Identify laser design, engineering, and development opportunities as a focus for investment, and acquire an Australian petawatt laser;
- Establish a local sovereign advanced manufacturing industry for key components of USPL systems; and
- Build a workforce of experts in USPL science, design, and manufacture as a foundation to grow the emerging industry.
HB11 believes achieving these goals could significantly advance Australia in its race towards becoming a global sustainable energy superpower using fusion energy as a core component of the future clean energy mix.
Petawatt-class lasers have a range of applications beyond fusion energy, including benefits which will advance medical imaging and radiobiology, advanced sensing, directed energy, and the elimination of long-lived radioactive waste, to name just a few.
Currently there are 71 ultra-high intensity laser facilities in the world but, despite Australia being a powerhouse in laser science and technology, there are none in the southern hemisphere including Australia.
This severely limits local research and commercial capabilities by leaving Australian companies like HB11 Energy heavily reliant on highly competitive overseas facilities.
Establishing a local petawatt laser facility could not only expand critical research in physics, energy science, quantum electrodynamics, and astrophysics within Australia, but also create new industrial opportunities, international partnerships, industries, and applications, according to HB11 Energy.
"Australia needs a large-scale solution as it phases out its legacy energy systems and embraces clean energy. This is exactly what fusion energy can provide: clean energy that does not use any radioactive fuels and does not generate radioactive waste. It has the scale of a nuclear reactor and the safety of traditional renewable sources, while also generating electricity directly, without the requirement of a steam-cycle," says HB11 co-founder and managing director Dr Warren McKenzie.
"Recent breakthroughs have propelled laser-based fusion to the front of the global race towards this holy-grail of energy generation. However, the lack of lasers capable of performing fusion experiments is the primary bottle-neck limiting progress globally," says McKenzie, a former Sydney Young Entrepreneur Awards finalist.
He said this presented an opportunity for Australia to develop the next-generation of purpose-built laser systems and advanced manufacturing, that would also see Australia become a global leader in fusion energy science.
"For HB11 Energy, it would allow us to keep our R&D on home soil," he says.
"It was an Australian, Sir Mark Oliphant who demonstrated nuclear fusion by splitting the atom in 1931, with the field of laser fusion being pioneered by our co-founder Prof Heinrich Hora. A local, dedicated facility would allow our research to remain in Australia instead of being lost to overseas markets, investors, or partners."
Professor Anton Middelberg, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at Adelaide University, says a petawatt class laser would be a gamechanger for the Australian scientific community, and create benefits beyond solely scientific applications.
"The research to be performed with HB11 Energy, a partner of the Trailblazer program is the first step towards creating a multi-billion-dollar nuclear fusion energy industry in Australia, and we’re proud of the partnerships that will take this endeavour to the next stage," Middelberg says .
Representatives from Thales and EX-Fusion are also optimistic about the consortium's potential.
"Thales has a global commitment to support the development of clean energy solutions and is a long-term investor in advanced technology research in Australia. The ultra-short-pulse and high-peak-power laser technology developed and manufactured by Thales is critical for this coalition, and we are excited to be working with this international team at the cutting edge of fusion energy research," says Thales Australia VP strategy Gary Dawson.
"EX-Fusion's participation in the Australian petawatt class laser project not only increases the quality of the project for the scientific community, but also strengthens the bilateral relationship between Japan and Australia," adds EX-Fusion chief revenue officer Koichi Masuda.
"Building this facility, a first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, opens up for increased collaboration for the advancement of nuclear fusion, laser medical treatment, and industrial applications. We look forward to the partnership under this agreement and to work closely with our counterparts in Australia for the advancement of laser technology," Masuda adds.
Regarding the breakthrough at the NIF, McKenzie says the result is significant because it shows that lasers, rather than magnetic confinement, may be the fastest pathway to commercial and scalable fusion energy production.
"The achievement of net energy gain from laser fusion is as significant to the global energy industry as the first moon landing was for the space industry," he says.
"HB11 Energy co-founder, Professor Heinrich Hora, one of the pioneers of laser fusion globally, predicted laser fusion would be possible decades ago. We founded HB11 Energy together in the pursuit of net energy gain using non-radioactive fuels, and earlier this year we became the first private fusion company in the world to demonstrate a material number of fusion reactions in a laser experiment.
"A huge congratulations to the team at the National Ignition Facility. This result will put a rocket under a new industry of high-power lasers, and inspire billions to be invested in laser fusion energy. The goal with our new coalition is to help direct this investment into partnerships and companies that can make Australia a global leader in this new advanced manufacturing industry, and fusion energy generation at large."
Following press coverage, the NIF has today confirmed the results for the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach a scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.
This first-of-its-kind feat will provide unprecedented capability to support the US National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Stockpile Stewardship Program and will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy.
"This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” says US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.
"The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists — like the team at NIF — whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing."
"We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous. Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance,” added Dr Arati Prabhakar, the US President’s chief adviser for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Dr Kim Budil, a director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that runs the facility, says the pursuit of fusion ignition is "one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people".
"Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit — a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged. These are the problems that the US national laboratories were created to solve," Dr Budil says.
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