Harnessing the sweat of the sun


91-year-old theoretical physicist Heinrich Hora and material scientist Warren McKenzie, the co-founders of HB11 Energy, believe they can radically change the future with a high-powered laser and a few protons to create viable nuclear fusion. Now, they say, they just need a $100 million laser of their own to prove it, and the Australian government to show some enthusiasm.
Heinrich Hora and Warren McKenzie, co-founders of HB11 | Image source: Damian Bennett for Forbes Australia

“We say we will that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.”

These words were allegedly spoken by French physicist and Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes when discussing nuclear fusion. The sun’s energy stems from a giant nuclear fusion reaction, where hydrogen is converted into helium in the sun’s core. How to replicate that fusion reaction and its clean, plentiful energy, has vexed physicists for decades, not least because of high temperatures – 100 times that of the sun – needed to spark the reaction.

But a German-Australian theoretical physicist and a material scientist from the University of NSW claim they’ve worked out how to ignite the reaction using a high-powered laser, circumventing the need for potentially catastrophically dangerous searing heat. Heinrich Hora and Warren McKenzie co-founded HB11 Energy, Australia’s first (and only) fusion energy company in 2019, and they claim to be the only company in the world that has demonstrated hydrogen-boron fusion reactions are possible with lasers.

They also say they are the only private fusion company to achieve and publish a fusion result. HB11 claim they have the world’s cheapest, simplest and most scalable fusion solution and if they can prove it, and make it work at scale, they say it will change the energy landscape forever.

Fusion energy companies want to achieve what scientists call Q = 1, that is, when the power being released by the fusion reactions is equal to the required heating power. It’s referred to as scientific breakeven.

The race to Q=1

The US$3.5 billion ($5.6 billion) Californian fusion research lab, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), hit headlines in January this year after it confirmed a Q of 0.7. The NIF achieved this result using 192 laser beams and a multibillion-dollar facility. McKenzie claims it is the single best fusion result in history.

But HB11’s results are arguably more impressive because the company, a minnow compared with NIF, has so far only raised about $5 million. In 2020, with less than $1 million to its name, it demonstrated “positive” fusion (albeit a Q of 0.0001) on its first experiment.

“We did it with a different method, and it worked out very well, without billions of dollars in research,” McKenzie says. If HB11 demonstrates hydrogen-boron fusion successfully (in other words, if it can achieve a Q greater than 1), “it would be bigger than the moon landing,” he says.

However, it is facing a number of hurdles. For starters, Australia doesn’t have its own high-powered laser (they cost about US$100 million to acquire). Also nuclear power plants are banned in all states and territories, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) sees little value in pursuing nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

There are two main kinds of fusion reactions: hydrogen-boron and deuterium-tritium. Hydrogen-boron-11 fusion (the kind that HB11 demonstrates) is considered superior, because it does not produce radioactive waste and its fuels are abundant. But it has been difficult to experiment with because the temperatures required to achieve this reaction are around 100 times hotter than the sun. Scientists have pursued deuterium-tritium fusion reactions instead because the temperatures required to achieve it are relatively low.

Heinrich Hora, co-founder of HB11 | Image source: Damian Bennett for Forbes Australia

Hora began theorising about hydrogen-boron fusion reactions in the late 70s. He hypothesised fusion reactions could be achieved without high temperatures – using laser properties that didn’t exist then. His peers didn’t agree.

“Professor Hora’s approach was kind of left field,” McKenzie says. In the 1970s, Hora moved to Australia to chair the theoretical physics department at UNSW after coming to metaphorical blows with “greenies” in Germany over restrictions around nuclear energy.

“I was tired of fighting with nuclear conservatives,” he says. His now-late wife Rosemarie (who was also a physicist) and his 6 children joined him. Around the same time, Canadian physicist Donna Strickland and French scientist Gerard Mourou invented chirped pulse amplification (CPA), high powered pulses of laser light over short durations. Strickland and Mourou would later win a Nobel Prize for their work, and thanks to CPA, Hora’s theories about laser-ignited fusion could – and would – be proven.

Hora was still working at UNSW when he met McKenzie in 2015, one year after he filed the first patent for non-thermal HB11 fusion.

“I met Professor Hora bumping around UNSW with a big pile of papers,” McKenzie recalls. “He asked if I wanted to take a look at his findings and I thought, ‘this is actually amazing’.” These papers would hold the results of several successful demonstrations of non-thermal HB11 fusion using new laser technology.

“It was heavy – scientifically, it was very confronting,” McKenzie says. “What was very important was that this theoretical work that Heinrich had been working on since before the discovery of the computer was actually turning out to be true in experiments.”

“Someone said to me, ‘Hey, you do know you have the weight of climate change on your shoulders, don’t you?”

– Warren McKenzie, co-founder of HB11

McKenzie has spent his career recognising science ‘goldmines’ – he helped launch four businesses from scientific research – so he knew a great opportunity when he saw one and decided to jump on board. “The impact this research could have was so far and above any other company I’ve ever seen – even before we had results,” he recalls.

The year after Hora and McKenzie launched HB11, the company conducted its first fusion experiment at the University of Texas using its petawatt laser (that’s a million, billion watts). The reaction culminates in the single press of a button that shoots a proton (hydrogen) at another proton (boron-11), smashing them together, much like a gun shoots a pellet at a target. The focus of these experiments is to get as many shots as possible.

“The unfortunate thing is, there’s no eureka moment,” McKenzie says. “The laser time is valuable, so your focus is collecting the raw data. It’s really only weeks or months later, once you’ve analysed all of that – and analysis sometimes needs more simulations – that you can actually understand the results.”

This is when they achieved a Q of 0.0001, or 0.01%. “We need to get to 1% – and then of course the next step is 100%,” McKenzie says, and he believes that’s due in the next decade. In February 2021, the company closed an over-subscribed pre-seed funding round of $4.6 million, led by a group of investors including start-up investor Lukasz Gadowski (behind Delivery Hero, Enpal and Volocoptor). The company is planning on launching a US subsidiary so it can apply for public-private partnerships over there, similarly to NASA and SpaceX, and it hopes to raise more capital to acquire its own petawatt laser.

Hora has stepped back from the day-to-day proceedings of the company, now. “It’s a lot for me – let alone a 91-year-old,” McKenzie says. But he remains involved at a board level and oversees scientific decisions and company appointments. He is also an Emeritus Professor of the university, has 16 grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren – all of which are smiling in framed photo collages around his living room. Though, you’d be forgiven for paying more attention to the photos of Hora with famous folk – in one, shaking hands with former US president Jimmy Carter. In the years since its launch, the HB11 team has appointed Jan Kirchhoff as the financial director of HB11 and Dr. Adi Paterson, the former CEO of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) as a non-executive director.

The long-standing joke in this field is that fusion energy is always 50 years away. But McKenzie says he doesn’t find it all that funny. It doesn’t help that the CSIRO is not interested in nuclear energy research. In its 2021-22 update on the cost of large-scale electricity generation in Australia, the CSIRO said nuclear energy remains expensive and was a relatively immature energy source, pointing instead to the availability of mature, low-cost alternatives (like wind and solar) that could be deployed faster.

“When you have a lot of regulations around [deuterium-tritium] fusion, because you can create a bomb from it and it creates radiation, and it takes you a year to do one experiment, of course it’s going to take 50 years,” McKenzie says.

“If you could do the same number of experiments on hydrogen-boron fusion – or fusion generally – as you could developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, it probably would be done in a couple of years.”

HB11 says it will be able to circumvent regulations more easily, because hydrogen-boron reactions can’t be turned into bombs. If fusion is successful, and McKenzie is confident it will be, he believes the first use-case will be in electrolysis plants. But eventually, fusion could power our homes cleanly, and for generations. After all, there’s no radioactive waste, and the fuels are abundant (McKenzie points to Hora’s sliding balcony windows and says there’s enough boron in those windows alone to fuel HB11 reactions for our kids, their kids, their kids’ kids and beyond). The big, unanswered question is how much will it cost.

“We don’t know where it’s going to land exactly, but it could be anywhere from quite expensive – and maybe more useful for niche capabilities – or it could go the other way and redefine the cost of energy to be a lot lower than it is today.”

For now, he is focused on the company’s next move: finding the right lead investor to see it through. And of course, trying to save the planet. “Someone said to me, ‘Hey, you do know you have the weight of climate change on your shoulders, don’t you?,” McKenzie says. “I said, ‘Do I? What?’ And the extent of that hasn’t dawned on me yet, but I’m doing my best.” More than that, McKenzie is committed to making Professor Heinrich Hora a household name, Hora’s life’s work, his legacy, and potentially, our future.

So what is fusion anyway?

A nuclear fission reaction can produce an atomic bomb or power a conventional nuclear power plant. Fission reactions occur when a single, large atom is split into multiple atoms. When they split, they release radioactive neutrons.

These neutrons continue to slice up atoms, creating more harmful neutrons, which split more atoms – and so on. These reactions produce a lot of radioactive waste and can make objects they encounter radioactive.

A fusion reaction is where two small atoms are smashed together to produce a bigger one. Often, it is done through increased temperatures: scientists heat two atoms, and hope they crash into each other. With laser fusion, scientists shoot one particle at another (in HB11’s case, it is a hydrogen proton at a boron proton) using a laser beam.

The outcome is the same in both cases: the total mass of the resulting atom is less than that of the original two and the leftover mass becomes energy (E=mc2). It’s harder to do, because naturally atoms repel each other. It’s also more difficult because of the extreme temperatures needed to fuse the atoms together.

However, in the case of hydrogen-boron fusion reactions, no neutrons are released. Just a little bit of helium. It’s also a stable process. The lasers will simply turn off if something goes awry – unlike nuclear fission reactors, where problems can lead to devastating consequences.

Australia’s history with nuclear energy

In 1958, Australia opened its first nuclear reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights to test nuclear materials.

The Lucas Heights reactor produced neutrons through fission reactions, but was shut down in 2007 and converted to produce nuclear isotopes for medical imaging and treatment. Now, it produces about 85% of the nuclear medicine products used in Australian hospitals.

Australia’s reluctance to deploy nuclear energy was deepened by 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Australia has no nuclear power stations, but it produces a third of the world’s uranium, the fuel most widely used to produce nuclear reactions.

Australia exports around 7,571 tonnes of uranium each year, worth more than $700 million. These exports could power 39 nuclear reactors, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Where are HB11 on the map?

The global energy market is worth US$15 trillion.

HB11 is the only Australian fusion energy company, but there are other fusion energy companies across the globe, both public and private.HB11 is the only company in the world to have adopted the laser-boron approach to fusion.

China’s ENN Energy Research Institute and the United States’ Lockheed Martin Skunk Works are the only two public companies researching fusion. However, there are also some government-funded projects, like ITER in France, the NIF in the US and JET in the UK.

HB11 says its biggest competitor is Marvel fusion, a German startup that has raised 60 million euros since its founding in 2019.