For decades, fusion energy has been physicists’ grail of infinite, clean power. Now a completely new approach by engineers at the University of New South Wales has moved fusion power closer to practicality.
Fusion scientists have been trying to capture the same kind of energy released by the sun in the same way as the sun: by creating temperatures so hot – as hot as 27 million degrees F – that hydrogen atoms melt together, spewing vast amounts of energy as they fuse. That raw energy would then be harnessed to generate electricity.
To do that, developers have been tinkering with giant reactors the size of barn silos fitted out with lasers, giant magnets, and other gear costing tens of millions of dollars and fueled by radioactive materials such as tritium.
While some of the devices have yielded a few moments of energy greater than the vast amounts of electricity they consume, no sustained reaction has been achieved, much less a commercially viable technology.
Now HB11, a start-up from the Australian university, has re-imagined fusion from scratch and come up with a method that is not only simpler but also more promising.
Instead of relying on giant magnets and unearthly heat, HB11’s reactor is a largely empty metal sphere with a pellet of boron held in the center. The sphere has openings in its sides for two lasers: one establishes a magnetic field to channel the reaction and the other propels hydrogen atoms into the boron fuel pellet with enough force to fuse.
The engineers describe the process as using hydrogen as a dart thrown by a laser. If the dart hits a boron atom, a cascading fusion reaction begins.
Better yet, the resulting flow of electricity can be sent into an existing power grid with very little processing or modification or the need for turbines or other generators, the engineers say.
Early results show a billion times more individual fusion reactions than the scientists had expected, they reported in a recent paper.
The technology yields no radioactive waste and eliminates the specter of a meltdown if things go wrong, according to the developers.
The start-up continues to develop the technology but refuses to speculate about when a commercial reactor, or even a public demonstration, will be ready – although it says the new approach will be both cheaper and faster to develop than conventional fusion attempts.
TRENDPOST: The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended last week that the U.S. make an “urgent” investment to bring a commercial fusion reactor into the commercial power grid by 2040.  
HB11’s new reactor is likely to beat that deadline by years.
By avoiding radioactive fuels and absurdly high temperatures, HB11 has shown an entirely new concept that makes practical fusion energy possible. Because of its simplicity, the company’s design also could end the nuclear power industry as it has existed for half a century.

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