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Julia Bergin

How a scientific breakthrough could kickstart Australia’s nuclear energy rebrand

US government scientists have achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction, cracking the (70-plus-year-old) code for clean energy.

The results from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s national ignition facility in California were formalised today, marking the first time scientists have “productively” been able to get more energy out than in from a fusion reaction.

“They shot a bunch of lasers at a pellet of fuel and more energy was released from that fusion ignition than the energy of the lasers,” said White House science chief Arati Prabhakar, offering a short and sweet summary of the rather large task.

In short: reproduce a star on earth to generate millions of years of energy supply.

“If one can harness that reaction it does project the possibility of providing sustainable baseload power free of emissions,” said Matthew Hole, professor of physics, mathematics and electrical engineering at the Australian National University’s Mathematical Sciences Institute.

Today science officially crossed that green threshold, opening up a world of possibilities — including a potential nuclear rebrand in Australia.

An explosive discovery

The US experiment is a breakthrough in fusion science, but not a world first in terms of net energy gain.

“It has been done before,” said Griffith University expert in applied mathematics and physics Nathan Garland. “We’ve had demonstrations of higher energy yields coming out but that was hydrogen bombs detonated underground.

“That’s not controlled in any context, nor is it related to doing anything productive. This is different in the sense that it’s creating conditions to nurture these kinds of reactions.”

What the US scientists have ultimately done is emulate a hydrogen bomb on a tiny scale. The process is called “inertial confinement” and quite literally relies on keeping things still. Lasers (precisely 192 in the US lab) are fired at a tiny target (one-tenth of a centimetre in diameter, “about the size of a peppercorn”) 10 times a second. The target heats to a balmy 3000C, compresses, explodes — “briefly simulating the conditions of a star” — and out pops energy.

Although the field of fusion has long moved beyond the 1950s scale of technology and weapons, inertial confinement fusion is intrinsically linked to arms testing. That’s why the national ignition facility exists.

“Although blowing up a small capsule is in and of itself not weaponisation, there is a clear blur,” said Hole. “You can still do amazing science even if there is a dimension to it that is weapons-orientated, but I’m not convinced it would be the right pathway to choose.”

Hole is on team “magnetic confinement” — the alternative method of fusion. That process basically tries to recreate the sun with a big box of hot plasma and a magnetic field.

Garland (also team magnet) is less fazed about the flipside of the fusion coin: “It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to lead to a Pandora’s box, because that’s been opened since the ’50s. We lived that with the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis. Now it’s about trying to harness and control it.”

Nuclear, but not as you know it

Fusion comes under the umbrella of nuclear power but unlike its better-known cousin “fission”, it has no business in half-lives and radioactivity.

“It’s ultimately an unfortunate branding situation,” said Garland.

So what is the difference?

On a large scale, Garland said nuclear fusion is less accident-prone than nuclear fission: “In terms of the damage you can create, whether intentional like a bomb or unintentional like Fukushima, that scale is not really possible with fusion.”

Up close, fission splits atoms in two, while fusion joins them together. But both are branded nuclear because of the energy that they tap into.

In short, nuclear is a force. It sits alongside the other bigwigs in the field of forces including gravity (keeps us grounded), electromagnetic (opposites attract and like charges repel), and strong (operates at the subatomic level to bind matter and make… more matter). Nuclear is a “weak” force, but do not be deceived: its position description involves managing all unstable subatomic particles and fuelling the sun.

The differences between fusion and fission are often lost in science translation, and Garland anticipated the catch-all catchphrase would impact Australian investment and uptake of fusion technology: “There’s a chance that it could be co-opted by both sides of politics.

“On the Barnaby side, they might say, ‘Now that we’re talking about nuclear again, let’s do it all.’ And then the other side says, ‘It’s nuclear, it’s bad, let’s not do that.’ “

Fanfare for fusion in Australia

Australia is part of the global effort to make fusion energy a reality (as a non-member of the world’s largest fusion experiment), but it does not yet have a fully fledged industry.

The government invests next to nothing in home-grown research, but the private sector is attempting to secure Australia a seat at the table. Australian tech company HB11 Energy announced yesterday it would create a coalition of global laser technology “heavyweights” — including industry leaders from Japan, New Zealand and Europe — and build a first-of-its-kind laser facility in Australia. There are 71 ultra-high-intensity laser facilities in the world but not one below the equator.

Earlier this year, the company was awarded a $20 million project by Deakin University as part of a plan to build “the largest recycling and clean energy advanced manufacturing ecosystem in Australia”.

HB11 Energy founder and managing director Dr Warren McKenzie has ambitions for Australia to become a global leader in fusion energy science, but both Hope and Garland said Australia needed to first step up as a supporting nation to countries like the US, UK and Japan that pour tens of billions of government dollars (supplemented by significant private sector investment) into fusion research every year.

“This is not about trying to adopt any form of nuclear energy in Australia — fusion or fission — it’s about being part of the international effort to come up with a climate solution,” Hope said.

The US experiment is a “milestone” but also just the “start”. For fusion to have widespread application as the global green energy source of choice, the ratio of energy out to energy in needs to be scaled up dramatically, much more than the US experiment.

“The best value for money is to do that collectively,” said Garland.

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