Fusion processes power the Sun. A very intense amount of energy is formed in the star's core everyday through the fusion of Hydrogen and Helium. The Sun fuses 620 million metric tons of hydrogen each second which powers the entire solar system. This energy is clean and abundant, but just very hard to replicate, and widely regarded as the holy grail to power human lives in the future, since the idea was birthed six decades ago.

Though the process is difficult to achieve, Australian researchers say they are very close to perfecting a laser-driven technique for creating fusion that dispenses energy and leaves no toxic radioactive waste.

Their patented design makes use of huge advancements made in generating high-intensity laser beams to study various particle phenomenon. This group of ambitious scientists are looking to create fusion energy based on hydrogen-boron reactions.

Unlike other experimental methods, the team from Sydney used hydrogen-boron fusion which was achieved using two powerful lasers in rapid bursts, that apply precise non-linear forces to compress the nuclei together. Other popular methods include heating fuel to the temperature of the Sun using massive, high-strength magnets to control superhot plasmas inside a doughnut-shaped toroidal chamber.

The team members feel that their approach of using hydrogen-boron reactions far outstrips the current nuclear fission efforts by the U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in France.

laser-2_1 The central core of the large laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device of the National Ignition Facility in the USA. Photo: UNSW Sydney

"I think this puts our approach ahead of all other fusion energy technologies," said lead author Heinrich Hora from the University of New South Wales in Sydney in a press release, and who predicted in the 1970s that fusing hydrogen and boron might be possible without the need for thermal equilibrium.

According to the international team of researchers, advancements in laser technology have made this method more viable now than ever before.

According to the release, when hydrogen fuses with boron in a laser-catalyzed fusion reaction, no neutrons are produced and there is no uncontrolled radioactivity to be accounted for in its primary reaction. And unlike most other sources of power production — like coal, gas and nuclear power, which rely on heating liquids like water to drive turbines — the energy generated by hydrogen-boron fusion converts directly into electricity.

But the downside has always been that this needs much higher temperatures and densities — almost 3 billion degrees Celsius, or 200 times hotter than the core of the Sun — which the team looks to counter by employing high-powered lasers that technology now permits.

In fact, recent experiments with lasers showed that an "avalanche" fusion reaction could be triggered in the trillionth-of-a-second blast from a petawatt-scale laser pulse, whose fleeting bursts pack a quadrillion watts of power.

"It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations," said Hora. "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."

"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, a spin-off company from Australia with rights to Hora’s patent.

"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 need for renewable energy is now, greater than ever. Glaciers are melting. Several reports claim that Antarctic ice shelves are no as stable as they seem. The effects of global warming can be seen in our everyday life and a major contributor to that is greenhouse emission. 

The world is heating up fast and we need to do something about it. If recreating the fission of the Sun is what it would take to reinvogarate efforts to conserve the planet we live in, then we must immediately get that underway.

But, with the new advancement, a future where the energy source of the Sun can be tapped to produce cheap, renewable and environmentally friendly energy doesn’t seem so far away after all.

The study was published in the scientific journal Laser and Particle Beams on Dec. 15.