The pursuit of fusion as an abundant, clean energy source has always been a beacon of hope for scientists worldwide. A recent breakthrough by physicists in the US and Japan has sparked new optimism in the field.
For the first time, scientists from the US and Japan have witnessed nuclear fusion between protons and boron-11 atoms in a magnetically confined plasma. This development underscores the potential of proton-boron fusion as an abundant, cost-effective energy source. However, some experts caution that the science behind this energy source remains largely unproven and significant technical challenges must be overcome before commercialization.
The Potential of Proton-Boron Fusion
Fusion energy, with its promise of nearly limitless, clean, baseload energy without the risks of meltdown and long-lived waste associated with fission, has been the Holy Grail of energy science. Proton-boron fusion, in particular, offers unique advantages over traditional deuterium-tritium fusion. It involves easily-mined boron instead of the rare tritium and generates three helium atoms – the energy of which can potentially be converted directly into electricity. This reaction produces no neutrons, substantially reducing the radioactive contamination of reactor components.
The Hurdles of Proton-Boron Fusion
Despite these advantages, proton-boron fusion comes with its own set of challenges. It requires extreme conditions – temperatures around 1.5 billion Kelvin, far surpassing the 100 million Kelvin needed for deuterium-tritium fusion. The scientists also highlight the difficulty in generating more energy through fusion reactions than is needed to power a reactor, especially considering a commercial plant will need an energy gain of at least 50 to compensate for inefficiencies in the power-generation process.
A Promising Step Forward
The team from TAE Technologies and the National Institute for Fusion Science in Japan carried out the groundbreaking experiment using the Large Helical Device (LHD), a stellarator with the required fusion fuel. Their detector registered about 10^12 fusion reactions per second, in agreement with computer simulations. This is not the first observation of proton-boron fusion, but it is the first in a magnetically confined, thermonuclear plasma, which is where it would ultimately be exploited. The researchers are confident that TAE will achieve energy gain in one of its devices and aims to generate electricity for the grid from a pilot proton-boron power plant by the early 2030s.
The successful observation of proton-boron fusion in a magnetically confined plasma opens up a new realm of research in the field of fusion energy. Future studies will aim to address the challenges posed by the extreme conditions required for proton-boron fusion and explore methods to increase energy gain for commercial viability. The potential impact of bremsstrahlung radiation on the reactor’s inner surfaces is also a key area for further investigation.