Tag Archives: boron

Ivy Mike.

Functional hydrogen-boron fusion could be here “within the next decade”, powered by huge lasers

Viable fusion may be just around the corner, powered on by immensely powerful lasers. Even better, a newly technique requires no radioactive fuel and produces no toxic or radioactive waste.

Ivy Mike.

The hydrogen bomb is the only man-made device to date that successfully maintained fusion.
Image credits National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

One of the brightest burning dreams of sci-fi enthusiasts the world over is closer to reality than we’ve ever dared hope: sustainable fusion on Earth. Drawing on advances in high-power, high-intensity lasers, an international research team led by Heinrich Hora, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at UNSW Sydney, is close to bringing hydrogen-boron reactions to a reactor near you.

Energy from scratch

In a recent paper, Hora argues that the path to hydrogen-boron fusion is now viable and closer to implementation that other types of fusion we’re toying with — such as the deuterium-tritium fusion system being developed by the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in France.

Hydrogen-boron fusion has several very appealing properties which Hora believes puts it at a distinct advantage compared to other systems. For one, it relies on precise, rapid bursts from immensely powerful lasers to squish atoms together. This dramatically simplifies reactor construction and reaction maintenance. For comparison, its ‘competitors’ have to heat fuel to the temperatures of the Sun and then power massive magnets to contain this superhot plasma inside torus-shaped (doughnut-like) chambers.

Furthermore, hydrogen-boron fusion doesn’t release any neutrinos in its primary reaction — in other words, it’s not radioactive. It requires no radioactive fuel and produces no radioactive waste. And, unlike most other energy-generation methods which heat water as an intermediary media to spin turbines — such as fossil-fuel or nuclear — hydrogen-boron fusion releases energy directly into electricity.

All of this goody goodness comes at a price, however, which always kept them beyond our grasp. Hydrogen-boron fusion reactions require immense pressures and temperatures — they’re only comfortable upwards of 3 billion degrees Celsius or so, some 200 times hotter than the Sun’s core.

Back in the 1970s, Hora predicted that this fusion reaction should be feasible without the need for thermal equilibrium, i.e. in temperature conditions we can actually reach and maintain. We had nowhere near the technological basis needed to prove his theory back then, however.

Why not blast it with a laser?

Laser fusion reactor.

Image credits Hora et al., 2017, Lasers and Particles.

The dramatic advances we’ve made in laser technology over the last few decades are making the two-laser approach to the reaction Hora developed back then tangibly possible today.

Experiments recently performed around the world suggest that an ‘avalanche’ fusion reaction could be generated starting with bursts of a petawatt-scale laser pulse packing a quadrillion watts of power. If scientists could exploit this avalanche, Hora said, a breakthrough in proton-boron fusion was imminent.

“It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations,” he said.

“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.”

Working together with 10 colleagues spread over six countries of the globe, Hora created a roadmap for the development of hydrogen-boron fusion based on his design. The document takes into account recent breakthroughs and points to the areas we still have to work on developing a functional reactor. The patent to the process belongs to HB11 Energy, an Australian-based spin-off company, which means it’s not open for everyone to experiment.

“If the next few years of research don’t uncover any major engineering hurdles, we could have a prototype reactor within a decade,” said Warren McKenzie, managing director of HB11.

“From an engineering perspective, our approach will be a much simpler project because 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,” he added.

The paper “Road map to clean energy using laser beam ignition of boron-hydrogen fusion” has been published in the journal Laser and Particle Beams.

Boron found on Mars – a signature of long-term habitable groundwater

The Curiosity Rover has found boron on the surface of Mars – a strong indication that the Red Planet once hosted long-term habitable groundwater, making it even more likely that life once existed on Mars.

ChemCam target Catabola is a raised resistant calcium sulfate vein with the highest abundance of boron observed so far. The red outline shows the location of the ChemCam target remote micro images (inset). The remote micro images show the location of each individual ChemCam laser point (red crosshairs) and the B chemistry associated with each point (colored bars). The scale bar is 9.2 mm or about 0.36 inches.
Credit: JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES-IRAP/William Rapin

The exciting discovery was announced at the American Geophysical Union conference. Because boron is associated with arid sites where much water has evaporated away, the perspectives are obviously intriguing.

“No prior mission to Mars has found boron,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Here on Earth, similar traces can be found in California or other arid areas which were once rich in water. If this is also the case on Mars, then everything would align to make Mars suitable for extraterrestrial life.

“If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars that formed these veins would have been 0-60 degrees Celsius [32-140 degrees Fahrenheit] and neutral-to-alkaline pH.” The temperature, pH, and dissolved mineral content of the groundwater could make it habitable.

The environmental implications of the boron and how exactly it came to be is still a matter of debate. It could be that the drying out of a lake resulted in a boron-containing deposit in an overlying layer, not yet reached by Curiosity. Some of the material from this layer could have later been carried by groundwater down into fractures in the rocks. Yet it could also be that the chemistry of clay-bearing deposits and groundwater affected how boron was picked up and dropped off within the local sediments. Either way, while there is still some debate going on, the evidence seems to indicate to a water-rich past, and one that could support life.

This type of active groundwater acts like a chemical reactor in a way. It dissolves old minerals, creates new ones, and generates a redistribution of electrons – all reactions which support the emergence of life. These dynamic processes are visible in the mineral veins that filled cracks in older layered rock. But this also affected the composition of that rock matrix surrounding the veins, and the fluid was in turn affected by the rock.

“There is so much variability in the composition at different elevations, we’ve hit a jackpot,” said John Grotzinger, of Caltech, Pasadena, Calif. As the rover gets further uphill, researchers are impressed by the complexity of the lake environments when clay-bearing sediments were being deposited and also by the complexity of the groundwater interactions after the sediments were buried.

The discovery of boron is just one of several exciting findings on Mars, but at the moment, we still don’t know for sure whether life did exist on Mars. The circumstantial evidence is strong, but at the end of the day, it’s still circumstantial evidence. But the stars are starting to align, and the future might hold some interesting things.