HB11 Energy: the Australian startup pursuing a new form of fusion

University of New South Wales spin-out HB11 Energy has a potentially revolutionary way of approaching the nuclear fusion race. Scarlett Evans spoke to the company to find out how their approach differs dramatically from the rest of the pack. 

Warren McKenzie, managing director of HB11 Energy. Image: HB11 Energy

Instead of relying on deuterium-tritium reactions and incredibly hot temperatures, like many other attempts at fusion, HB11 Energy envisions fusion kickstarted by plentiful hydrogen and boron B-11, with the reaction controlled by two lasers. Without the use of high temperatures or rare fuels, the approach could gain ground previously untouched by industry members.

Here, we speak with HB11 Energy managing director Warren McKenzie, and find out more about this new approach to achieving one of the energy world’s holiest grails.

Scarlett Evans: 

What is your team’s approach to nuclear fusion? How does it differ from existing methods?

Warren McKenzie: 

Our approach to fusion uses a new breed of high-power lasers called Chirped Pulse Amplification lasers. These were the subject of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics and are being used for many things from particle acceleration to fusion energy research. But instead of using temperature - which is what everyone else in the fusion community is doing - we are using them to rapidly accelerate hydrogen as what we call an “ultrafast plasma block” through a boron fuel, creating a fusion event when they hit each other.

It’s a paradigm shift in the way fusion is being approached, with the main difference being that it is non-thermal. That is, we are not heating the fuels to achieve fusion, which is the approach by almost all other groups, and also the cause of most of the challenges that have prevented other fusion energy approaches being realised.

The cool thing about this is that since the 1960s, everyone has focussed on temperature for this reaction. But Professor Heinrich Hora - who is the scientific director of our team - did a theoretical paper on the idea that fusion through lasers was possible, it was just that the right kind of lasers hadn’t yet been invented. So he actually called this in the 60s. Now, we’ve seen a few groups who have actually demonstrated the non-thermal fusion of hydrogen and boron, and that really incentivised us because the benefits of it are so huge.

Were you primarily motivated by the need to find a nuclear fusion method that did not rely on high temperatures?

The short answer is no. This has been Professor Hora’s dream since the 1960s and was motivated by the great benefits of the hydrogen-boron fusion reaction – that is, the fact that it is aneutronic, and therefore inherently safer as it doesn’t emit harmful radiation. Additionally, the fuel (boron) is abundant and waste is safe.

The non-thermal approach using lasers was proposed as the means to achieve this reaction. The temperatures required for a boron-hydrogen reaction are much higher than for other fusion reactions, such as deuterium and tritium (hydrogen – hydrogen). The problems with reaching these high temperatures are reflected in the billions of dollars spent on other fusion efforts.

I’m no expert on thermal fusion, but some of the challenges are the loss of heat from a system, making the goal or net-energy gain very difficult. Other challenges are the ability to maintain high temperatures for an extended period within a reactor.

Everyone thought achieving this reaction through temperatures was too hard, so a lot of them didn’t even bother. Our motivation for this work was, then, how do we achieve this through a non-thermal reaction?

What has your team been doing? And what’s next?

HB11 Energy has been ticking away at research for decades really. It has been those recent results (where people practically demonstrated the boron-hydrogen reaction was possible) that kicked us into gear to make this a commercial venture rather than a research project.

We are currently setting ourselves up as a company and are in the process of a seed fundraising round now. Once this first round of fundraising is closed we’ll be full steam ahead as a company. This will kick off a series of research projects around the world, focussed on rapidly progressing HB11 Energy’s concept towards a major goal of achieving net-energy gain. The first projects will all be computational modelling, so the fact that many labs are closed at the moment shouldn’t prove too problematic.

As we are still very much in a research phase, it would be premature to say that we will be building reactors in the near future. However, we do expect that there will be less scientific challenges than other groups focussed on thermal fusion, and that we can reach the goal of net-energy-gain sooner.

What place could nuclear fusion hold in a low-carbon world?

The world is looking for a new source of energy. While it is early days yet, if the science goes well and we are to roll out reactors in the future, we could look forward to a world where most of its energy is generated by safe fusion reactors. There’s enough boron in the world, and there’s absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be scaled up with good science once we establish a good prototype.

These reactors have the potential to be much smaller than current sites. We’re not creating heat to spin a turbine or a generator - the reactor itself generates the charge which we can then capture and turn into electricity.

So that means the physical footprint of the plant would be a lot smaller, and with the added safety benefits we hopefully wouldn't need all the safety infrastructure, which would also allow them to be placed closer to populations. These reactors would be widely distributed to take pressure off the grid, and even used as dedicated generators for remote towns, mining sites, ships or submarines.

Looking at the pitfalls of coal, renewables and nuclear, I think fusion energy will be a key energy source in the future. It is not a question of if but when it will happen.

Would we need any significant changes to current infrastructure to see nuclear fusion implemented?

Surprisingly not. Of course, whenever you do something that attracts a lot of attention you get naysayers coming out of the blue, but what was interesting for me was that 99% of the responses we had were supportive - the layperson doesn’t really question the benefits that come along with this kind of technology.

A lot of the opposition we have received had just misinterpreted the non-thermal aspect of our project. Perhaps a reason we haven’t really had any public pushback on it is that I don’t think nuclear is a bad word any more. I think coal is much more of a bad word now.