This is the concluding installment of Jonathan Tennenbaum’s two-part exclusive interview with Lukasz Gadowski, a prominent entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is investing big in new nuclear energy technology.
Earlier this year, Gadowski joined the board of directors of HB11 Energy, an upstart company that according to its website seeks to generate electricity using laser-ignited non-thermal fusion. Read Part 1 of the interview here.
Asia Times’ interviews are edited for clarity and concision.
JT: Last year I interviewed Andrew Holland, the executive director of the Fusion Industry Association, which HB11 just recently joined.
If you take all the projects being pursued and the technologies involved, such as the ultra-short-pulse lasers HB11 is using, then you can actually see a whole industrial sector taking shape. What do you consider special about HB11 Energy, the fusion company you are investing in?
LG: In the name of company HB11, H stands for hydrogen, B for boron and 11 is the atomic number of one of the boron isotopes. The special thing about HB11 is that it is laser fusion, but the fuel is hydrogen and boron.
JT: Practically all the conventional approaches to fusion using lasers have been oriented to using deuterium-tritium as the fuel. How would you explain the choice of hydrogen and boron instead?
LG: Hydrogen boron fusion is harder to do than the classical fusion of deuterium and tritium, the heavy isotopes of hydrogen. The so-called Coulomb forces, the repulsive forces between the nuclei of hydrogen and boron, are harder to overcome.
But when you overcome them, you have one nice advantage: You produce no neutrons. It’s called aneutronic. The hydrogen fuses with the boron and becomes a very highly energetic carbon nucleus that immediately decays into three alpha particles, which are helium nuclei. That is basically what you end up with. You get no free neutrons, which would produce radioactivity.
The classical fusion approach, with deuterium and tritium, has the disadvantage that it produces neutrons, and those neutrons make other materials radioactive – for example, the magnets. So you again end up with a nuclear waste problem, plus other problems because of structural integrity and so on. This is why hydrogen-boron fusion could be so elegant.
Another thing that makes it elegant is that we don’t need tritium. Because this particular isotope of hydrogen practically doesn’t exist on Earth naturally. You have to breed it.
And there is one further advantage: achieving fusion using lasers rather than the traditional tokamaks, which need huge magnets. The tokamaks try to maintain the hot fuel in a kind of thermal equilibrium. With lasers, you get the high temperatures but in a highly localized region in the fuel, far from thermal equilibrium.
JT: As I understood from HB11 scientific director Heinrich Hora, the crucial breakthrough came with the development of ultra-high-power, ultra-short-pulsed lasers.
LG: Exactly. These lasers didn’t exist before, and now the first few of them exist. It is a nascent field. These are very complex machines. Laser time is expensive. And we need to figure out what is the right laser energy, what is the target composition.
That is what we are doing at HB11. On the one hand, we work with computer simulations that help us to approximate what the right target is going to be.
On the other hand, we conduct experiments where we can measure the yield of alpha particles – basically the yield of energy when we shoot the laser onto the target. The big goal is to get more energy out than you get in, the so-called Q-value larger than 1.
JT: So as an entrepreneur with a passion for physics, you are not just concerned with financial and business aspects, but take a strong interest in the science itself.
LG: From a business perspective, yes, from a scientific perspective, no. It’s somewhere in the middle. At least to understand the concepts enough to be able to ask questions. Because my job is to provide resources. I need to understand where we really are, which resources to provide and what they are.
I’m investing capital from our investment company, Team Europe, but we are also attracting other investors. So we need to know what we are doing. Plus, it is really fascinating intellectually. In this way we can see the status of the research and science.
And you end up with very practical problems – like, for example, detectors. You shoot a laser onto a target, for example. You produce a complicated mass of atoms and particles. How do you count how many alpha particles are really being produced, and what happens in-between?
One postulate for why this approach could work and why we could get so much energy out, is because of a kind of chain reaction we call an avalanche. The alpha particles that come out are very energetic, can collide with particles of the fuel and cause secondary reactions to happen.
That this happens is clear from experiments done so far by various groups of scientists. But we don’t know yet if enough of these secondary reactions happen to be able to sustain the burning of the fuel. And if we can sustain it, that means that we get more reactions per laser shot. A laser shot costs energy. But these things are not easy to measure.
JT: Well, I hope this project will move forward quickly, and I look forward to good news in the coming months.
LG: For comparison we also looked at fission. The image of fission that I had in my head was that this is something very dangerous and something very dirty, a multigenerational problem. We don’t really want this.
But then, looking deeper into the future, we discovered that there is no physical reason why fission energy should be dangerous and dirty. There are only engineering reasons.
The reactor designs that were chosen, the first generation of reactors – the reactors that we have had since the ’60s – happen to be not inherently safe and they happen to produce very long-lived, very toxic nuclear waste, especially in gas form. But there is no science risk in this, it is just an engineering and regulatory risk.
Reactor designs for fission reactors are feasible that are inherently safe, “walk away” safe; where there can be no meltdown; that produce much less waste – five percent of the amount that you have in traditional designs, and that waste is short-lived and not very toxic. The half-life is 30 to 40 years, so you wouldn’t need to store it for more than 300 years.
Plus the waste is not very dangerous because it’s in solid form. You don’t have to contain gaseous waste products. And there is almost no CO2 produced. That means clean, abundant energy.
JT: Are you thinking of reactors using a thorium cycle? There are lots of possibilities.
LG: Yes. And molten salt reactors. This works even with uranium. The thorium cycle would be better but from a practical perspective, it’s harder to achieve because the supply chain isn’t there yet.
You take a molten salt reactor, you start with the existing uranium cycle, and then once you’re up and running, you slowly develop a thorium supply chain.
Here we invested in one company called Seaborg. Both companies, HB11 and Seaborg, we found had the most elegant solutions in their respective fields.
But the world is a very large and vast place. I don’t think that this is the non plus ultra. I do not know. We are open to support other viable concepts as well, when they do not directly compete with those where we are already involved.
JT: At the end I would like to go back to the earlier discussion, when we were talking about science, optimism and education. I had mentioned my feeling that a lot of young people today are basically bored, and their personal potential is not really being mobilized. What do you think would be a way to deal with that problem?
LZ: It concerns the whole educational system, I guess, and the frame we put there. I’d like to encourage young people to follow their interests and not to mold them into things that are uninteresting for them. Don’t force people to learn everything, but find out what they are interested in, and then support that.
JT: In your case you mentioned that early on you developed a passionate interest in physics. Was this because of a teacher? It often happens that way.
LG: One of my teachers was Polish society. When I grew up in Poland, the first eight years of my life, they would teach me a lot about religion, about God, that God sees everything and God knows everything.
I tried to imagine this as a kid. What does it mean, how does it work? And then, what is the story of creation? They are very religious, and religion is basically philosophy. So this got a great weight in my brain.
Then when I moved to Germany, there was indeed a physics teacher, Klaus-Peter Haupt. I still remember the first lesson we had with him, when he told me about light and how light is a wave and goes into the eye and triggers a process there.
This is how vision happens. Wow, that’s interesting! It’s different from Adam and Eve, and to just say, “Let there be light.” And so I think the religion put in the big weight, the sense of importance, and science filled it. So religion is important, but then religion is not like a traditional church, religion is sort of like science.
Because this is the frontier of what we know. Maybe it’s wrong, but from the facts we can discern, it is the best we can do.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he is a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.