For as long as I can remember, fusion power has been “tantalisingly close”, with the “breakthrough” due at any moment and practically limitless, clean power “just around the corner”. I’m not admitting how many spins I’ve notched up around the Sun, but let me just say that I remember when digital watches were pretty exciting.

So, forgive me if I cock a sceptical eyebrow whenever I read about a revolutionary new development in fusion technology. Still, it took Edison 10 000 goes to finally figure out how to make a lightbulb, so we can live in hope that workable fusion technology might become a reality in time to power our flying cars.

One such “promising approach” is allegedly in development in Australia.

Australian scientists are tantalisingly close to developing the holy grail of clean energy, using high-powered lasers to fuse boron and hydrogen atoms together to generate electricity without any emissions or toxic waste.

A team of scientists at the University of NSW is developing the ­hydrogen-boron fusion technol­ogy, which is said to hold the promise of limitless, cheap baseload electricity with virtually no carbon ­dioxide emissions and zero radioactive waste. The only waste product is helium.

Helium is such a useful element that “waste product” seems a misnomer.

The pioneer of the technology, Heinrich Hora, said: “The clean and absolutely safe reactor can be placed within densely populated areas, with no possibility of a catastrophic meltdown such as that which has been seen with ­nuclear fission reactors.” Boron is cheap and naturally abundant, with sufficient known reserves to power the world for thousands of years.

Patents for the technology have been granted in the US, Japan and China to UNSW spin-out company HB11 Energy.

This development is coming just in time to join the Morrison government’s “technology target” approach to practical climate change action.

The announcement by UNSW of progress on its fusion research coincides with a new focus by the Morrison government on technology to combat climate change[…]

The government is planning to release a technology road map that will include advances in carbon­ capture and storage and other emissions technologies. Work is also progressing on a coal-to-hydrogen project based on Victoria’s brown coal reserves, with delivery of a hydrogen refin­ing plant to AGL’s Loy Yang facility in the Latrobe Valley.

Most approaches to fusion have been hampered by the difficulty of coping with the staggering temperatures and pressures involved, as well as the basic problem of producing more energy than it takes to trigger a fusion reaction (the fusion-powered H-bomb, for instance, uses a standard fission nuclear bomb as the trigger).

Professor Hora said advances in laser technology had been the key to realising his theories of how to produce fusion energy without the massive amounts of heat needed by other approaches.

The laser technology’s developers, Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018[…]Professor Hora said his react­or design was simple: a largely empty metal sphere, where a modestly sized HB11 fuel pellet is held in the centre, with apertures for the two lasers. One laser establishes the magnetic containment field for the plasma and the second triggers the “avalanche” fusion chain reaction.

A statement by UNSW said the alpha particles generated by the reaction would create an electrical flow that could be channelled almost directly into an existing power grid with no need for a heat exchanger or steam turbine­ generator.

Personally, I’m not going to get too excited just yet, but…

For all the caterwauling of Extinction Rebellion activists, nothing we possess right now is even remotely feasible as a replacement for fossil fuels. I have no doubt that humanity will eventually move on from fossil fuels, just as we abandoned horses and carts – but wind, solar, tidal and geothermal just won’t cut it. What is needed is a genuinely transformational technology, as revolutionary as the internal combustion engine.

If this new technology works, it may just be the golden key.

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