Matthew Hole pushes away from the desk, leans back in his chair and spins. The finer details of his office fade out of focus. For a brief moment, he forgets about the state of the world.
Pausing in front of the whiteboard, he sighs and runs a hand through his hair. He does this when he thinks, and Matthew thinks a lot. With each gesture, the curls stick out further and further so that by the end of the day, he leaves work with a head almost double the size as the one he arrived with.
Matthew is an associate professor and senior fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. Today, it’s blanketed by drizzle, the grounds soaked by an earlier storm.
Despite it being mid-spring, everyone on campus is in jeans and jumpers. It’s warm inside the Mathematical Science Institute, but somehow a chill lingers in the common areas of the building. The ‘piaaak’ of the glass doors on the ground floor announces the arrival of a handful of students, who pause to shake the morning rain from their umbrellas. It’s quiet for a weekday. Matthew explains that half of the staff and students are still working from home due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, like most days, Matthew wears black pants, black shoes and a checkered button-down. His glasses of choice are plain, the kind you might find in a discount tub at the chemist. His office is ordered.
To a passerby, he is the perfect picture of a mild-mannered academic. But his whiteboard suggests otherwise. On the back wall of his office, mathematical equations and symbols are scrawled over every available surface in a clash of blue, red, green and black. He explains that the markers sometimes run out when he’s in the middle of an idea. Phone numbers and functions mingle with careful drawings of houses, flowers and stick figures that have been left untouched. In the bottom, right-hand corner are the words ‘I love you, Dad’ and ‘I love you, Mum’.
Matthew has degrees in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and received his PhD in plasma centrifuge physics at the University of Sydney. That level of education is nothing short of intimidating. But he listens more than he talks.
A quiet sort of detachment disguises a keen and constant observation of the world around him, and a mind that is never on autopilot. Matthew is a husband, father, writer and professor. He is also a scientist and one who is working on a solution to climate change that might surprise you.
Stephen Hawking saw it as the future.
I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming – Stephen Hawking
Nuclear fusion is responsible for life on Earth. It powers all the stars in the universe, including our sun. Without it, the Earth would be a lifeless ball of ice-coated rock.
When stars are born in the dusty nurseries of molecular clouds, they become heavier and hotter until they trigger an extraordinary reaction. Hydrogen nuclei fuse together to create a new element; helium. Matter is lost each time the reaction happens, and this can be converted into energy. Four million times more energy than burning coal, oil or gas. All without radioactive waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
But Matthew wasn’t always interested in fusion. Before 2005, his passion was found in a centrifuge for separating nuclear isotopes, not hypothetical solutions to the energy crisis. It was on a trip to Brazil where he met his future wife Vanessa, a fellow Australian and climate scientist, that he began to re-think his direction.
“The passion sort of grew from an interest in doing science with a point,” says Matthew.
The idea of a fusion reactor is to replicate what happens in the core of the sun. We want to do it on Earth, but not get sunburnt – Igor Bray
In the early 2000s, Vanessa was offered a DPhil – the equivalent of a PhD, at Oxford University – and Matthew tagged along to England for the ride. On the damp grounds of the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Oxfordshire, Matthew put his knowledge of plasma physics and the fusion energy concept together. Then and now, the technology floats between pure theory and prototypes.
Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Curtin University, Igor Bray, explains that we can simulate the fusion reaction in a doughnut-shaped, airless chamber. This is called a Tokamak.
It’s a Russian designed reactor that uses heat and magnetic fields to make hydrogen nuclei fuse together. The reward is colossal amounts of energy on demand, with no long-lived radioactive waste or greenhouse gases. When British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington came up with the idea in 1920, the race to an inexhaustible energy supply began.
THE RACE TO INEXHAUSTIBLE ENERGY
It all started with a prank. The story broke on the 24th of March 1951. The President of Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón, announced to the international press “Argentina Produces Atomic Energy”.
It set the science community ablaze. Physicists everywhere were asking themselves how a scientist could have cracked this all on his own. Except that he didn’t.
In 1947, Austrian born scientist Ronald Richter was invited to participate in Argentina’s shot at catching up to the nuclear programs of the US and the Soviet Union. They called it the Huemul Project. The President was impressed by Richter’s theories about limitless energy. So he gave him an island in Patagonia and close to 65.2 million pesos.
What followed was a series of explosions and accidents that were shrouded in secrecy. Desperate to produce some results, Richter tried to pass off a freak measurement on a Geiger counter as success. It was later dismissed by his technicians and the rest of the science world.
Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, famously said “reading one line, one has to think he’s a genius. Reading the next line, one realises he’s crazy”.
Richter was ultimately dismissed as a fraud. But his claims about fusion energy started a competition that was even more secretive than the space race.
The ’60s and ’70s were the golden age for fusion research. Lyman Spitzer, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, read about Richter’s bold claims in the New York Times before he left for a ski trip to Aspen. Mulling the idea over on the slopes, he came up with another idea for a fusion reactor called the Stellarator, which he pitched to the US Atomic Agency Committee. Spurred on by Spitzer’s success, teams in the UK started pushing for more funding. They created the ZETA machine. After ZETA went public, the Soviet’s wanted a piece of the pie. Suddenly, the ability to create clean, limitless energy was within reach.
HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM
But then the problems started. Events like Chernobyl in 1986 caused confidence and funding for fusion projects to dry up. Researchers started to understand just how difficult it was to make fusion happen.
Professor Michael Campbell at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics explains that the “sun can do fusion because it’s so massive”. Controlling superheated ionised gas on a much smaller scale safely and cheaply is, some would say, impossible.
Matthew came into this field in the early 2000s. By this time, interest in fusion had well and truly flagged. The old saying, “fusion is always 30 years away”, stopped being a joke and had become a depressing reality. Matthew was seemingly nonplussed by this and remains so to this day. There’s an unlikely ease about him when discussing projects that may take another 50 years to finish.
“I haven’t given up for 15 years. I’m not going to give up now,” he says.
When Vanessa returned to Australia in 2005 to start a job at the CSIRO, Matthew started work with Robert Newar at ANU.
“If you are going to work on fusion in Australia, it has to be with him,” says Matthew, and his tone brooks no argument. Since then, he and a small group of scientists at universities across Australia have been working fervently on solutions for one of the last remaining attempts to put the sun in a bottle.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, started in 1988 and is now one of the biggest and longest-running science experiments in the world. China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have thrown over €20 billion ($32 billion) at it.
The gigantic, silver, doughnut-like machine is slowly emerging from a twisted mess of scaffolding and loose dirt at its site at Cadarache in Provence, France. ITER is now 75 per cent completed. Officials hope to fire up the reactor for the first time in early 2026.
Australia has a finger in this pie in the form of a technical partnership between ITER and The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, or ANSTO, in Lucas Heights, Sydney. But that’s where the commitment ends, according to Matthew.
“Australia has a moral obligation to, as the biggest exporter of coal, to find solutions beyond coal,” says Matthew.
If you’re going to create the problem then at the very least, give a sh*t about the solution – Matthew Hole
The year of 2020 was filled with the choking smoke of bushfires that burnt through more than 12.6 million hectares of land. Then there was COVID-19 lockdowns that continue even now. Instead of decisive action on climate change solutions, Matthew has been confronted with shrinking science departments and staff cuts.
Today, the ANU is the only remaining institution with significant credentials in fusion energy. Matthew leads a team of students at the MSI, whose research relates to fusion energy. Half of the group are working in the computer labs down the hall from Matthew’s office, and their jokes and laughter makes the drizzly morning seem not quite so dreary. ANU recently teamed up with the ITER Organisation to offer a fusion research program for talented students, just like those in Matthew’s group. This program will train the next generation of fusion scientists, which is a win for Australia, given the recent setbacks.
First, it was the H-1 Heliac, a stellarator device used to study how plasma behaves in fusion reactors, that got shipped overseas. Then the Australian government refused to fund a world-first coherence imaging optical system for tokamaks like ITER. Another ANU Professor and Fellow of the Institute of Physics, John Howard, spent decades designing it, only to be told that it would be too expensive to develop.
To do so, an estimated $60 million was needed over 10 years. Matthew concedes this is a lot of money, but also points out that it all comes down to priorities. To put this into context, the Australian government just closed a deal with the US and the UK to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which are estimated to cost over $100 million. This is in addition to the 72 US-built Joint Strike Fighter aircraft ordered in late 2020. According to the Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, each plane costs $124 million.
John says it goes against all the good things in life “energy security, clean energy and the environment…making the world a better place”.
Now retired, John spends more time with his family and on sunny golf courses in Port Macquarie than in an office. A self-professed nerd, he still remembers staring at the TV set on July 20, 1969, rapt, as Neil Armstrong took those famous steps for mankind. He hopes that when fusion energy does work, other kids will be able to experience this same feeling.
John O’Connor is working on doing just that. An Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle, he had a hand in setting up Canberra’s Questacon and he’s been running the Science and Engineering Challenge for more than 17 years.
He also works on the structure and composition of the outer layers of fusion reactors. These are called ‘extreme materials’ because they have to survive bombardment from neutrons that come out of fusion reactions.
He’s adamant that we need specialists like Matthew, John and himself to advise the Australian government about fusion technology.
Australia should be leading – we have the highest per capita use of electricity on the planet – John O’Connor
Mathew suggests the problem isn’t with the science of fusion, but with its image.
NUCLEAR IS A DIRTY WORD
Nuclear power is illegal in Australia. The public outcry against any and all nuclear energy was so great after the Cold War that a carpark deal between the Greens and the Australian Democrats in 1998 saw Australia’s nuclear future scrapped.
This refusal to use nuclear power means experientially we are in the dark about how useful or dangerous it really is. Out of the top 20 highest electricity consuming countries in the world, Australia is the only one not using nuclear power. In 2019, nuclear power plants provided 70.6 per cent of all electricity generated in France. Like many other countries in the EU, it’s using nuclear power plants to transition away from coal until a better solution can be found.
It’s no wonder Europe is on track for a 55 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
According to a Four Corners report in 2019, Australia will not only fail to meet our Paris Agreement targets but our greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing every year since 2015.
“Although nuclear accidents are rare, they produce severe damage and therefore generate a strong signal that there is an unusual risk in nuclear power generation,” said Dr Paul Slovic (1987), Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
Events both at home and abroad have dug down into the nation’s subconscious and stuck. Nuclear in Australia is a dirty word. In 1986, the same year as the Chernobyl disaster, Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls cried “a soreness in our eyes like weeping fire, a pox upon our skin, a boulder on our backs all our lives”, taking a stand against the testing of British nuclear weapons at Maralinga in South Australia.
This collective hostility towards all things nuclear has also stunted the progress of fusion projects in Australia.
“Fission and Fusion are two totally different things,” Matthew sighs, taking off his glasses.
“It’s a shame really”.
Joe Khachan is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, also working in plasma physics. He laughs, half in disbelief and half in dismay, at all the confusion between fission and fusion.
“People hate the word nuclear, apparently because nuclear equals radioactivity, which it doesn’t,” he says.
Nuclear fission is the process used in weapons and power plants, where the nucleus of an atom is split into smaller particles, releasing energy. Fusion is the opposite. In fusion reactions, nuclei are combined. Joe works in a niche field that is trying to produce fusion using electric fields as opposed to magnetic fields in a machine like ITER.
A reactor using this concept would theoretically be smaller and cheaper, but as always, there are lots of complications.
“I’m going to pursue it until I get kicked out,” he jokes, but there’s an edge to his happy demeanour.
Earlier in the day, he sat in on another meeting about staff cuts due to COVID-19. He now stares dejectedly at his bookcase. While there isn’t a shortage of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students who want to save the world, the corporate structure that universities are adopting might put a stop to research in niche fields like this one. Without research like Joe’s, Australian science won’t get very far.
If you thought COVID-19 was a disaster, think about an electromagnetic pulse, an asteroid strike or the sun dying – Joe Khachan
“If you care beyond your own lifetime, then you have to plan for a sustainable energy future”, says Joe.
“It has to be fusion. You have to get that right”.
WHAT’S THE CATCH
But Jim Green, an anti-nuclear campaigner from Friends of the Earth, wants the ban on nuclear energy to stay in place. An environmental advocate with a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, Jim counters the arguments from the nuclear physicists with his own expertise.
He mentions proudly that his home state, South Australia, is leading the nation in the transition to renewables. According to RenewEconomy, over 50 per cent of its energy now comes from variable sources like wind, solar and gas. But this reliance on renewable energy has created some problems.
Renewables face many challenges like battery storage, reliance on the weather and the limitations of geography. But, as Jim points outs, at least the technology exists.
“Fusion is in that first phase where it does not exist…I’m extremely sceptical”, says Jim.
Jim also points out that one of the Hydrogen isotopes that provide the fuel for nuclear fusion reactors is radioactive. Tritium or Hydrogen-3 has a half-life of 12.32 years.
The World Nuclear Association stated in 2005 that “some component materials will become radioactive during the lifetime of a (fusion) reactor, due to bombardment with high-energy neutrons, and will eventually become radioactive waste”.
Finding a blanket material to cope with this neutron bombardment remains a challenge for fusion scientists.
These issues with fusion projects of the past have led to the creation of HB11 Energy. Its the first and only fusion startup in Australia. Warren McKenzie, founder and managing director of the company, is a nanoscientist, materials engineer and entrepreneur.
His friendly charm and quick-wit help him bridge the uncomfortable gap between the worlds of science and business. Warren remembers his bizarre first encounter with the fusion concept. He was sitting in an entrepreneurship seminar at UNSW.
While the speakers droned on and on about updated tax law, Warren couldn’t help but be drawn to an older gentleman in the corner. In a thick German accent, the man proposed that he had the solution to the climate catastrophe. That man was Professor Heinrich Hora, and his work on Hydrogen Boron-11 fusion reactions is the foundation of HB11.
“I spent a lot of time trying to prove to myself why it wouldn’t work,” says Warren.
“I couldn’t, and that’s why I’m here.”
Heinrich’s design for a fusion reactor uses high power lasers and boron. Boron is an energy-dense, abundant element.
“The glass stuff that you put in the oven is a few percent Boron. It’s cheap. You can get it from IKEA,” says Warren. Boron isn’t renewable, he concedes, but “milligrams of this stuff creates a gigajoule of energy”.
One GJ of electricity can make 1000 pots of coffee, or keep a 60-watt light bulb lit for six months.
The laser is like a “big hammer”, he describes, and it delivers huge amounts of energy in one quadrillionth of a second. It’s what Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for in 2018.
Warren is confident that this design will produce a reactor that is small, cheap and produces no radioactive waste, without all the problems that ITER has been bogged down with. But he’s keeping it real. Science is experimental and “you’ve got to be 100 per cent honest” he repeats.
“Nothing is going to be ideal, and what is ideal is a notion that’s going to change over time.”
And HB11’s ambitions aren’t just ‘promising’ anymore. They are tangible. Results are coming from every corner of the science community that lasers are the missing piece of the fusion puzzle.
On August 8, 2021, a breakthrough experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US produced 1.3 megajoules of energy. This equates to around 3 per cent of the energy contained in one kilogram of crude oil. According to the lab, this result puts researchers on the threshold of fusion ignition.
Likewise, ITER just took delivery of a General Atomics made magnet so strong it can reportedly lift an aircraft carrier. And MIT scientists just revealed a new superconductive magnet – the most powerful of its kind to date.
So it seems nuclear fusion isn’t a false promise anymore. Progress is slow, but steady. Scientists haven’t given up. But they do have to suffer politicians whose commitment and interest waxes and wanes with their election campaigns.
The Morrison government has been weak on committing to net zero emissions, let alone taking nuclear fusion seriously as a solution to clean energy generation. In the Technology Investment Roadmap released in late 2020, nuclear fusion wasn’t even mentioned. According to Warren, “ it’s not a technology roadmap, it’s an economic one”.
At this stage, the Coalition government seems to be leaving fusion on the back burner. And the community of fusion scientists in Australia is dismayed and frustrated.
It’s been exactly 101 years since Eddington first suggested that stars draw their energy from a fusion of hydrogen into helium. A commercially viable reactor still does not exist. Even if ITER’s first plasma works in 2026, it still won’t produce electricity that consumers can actually use.
But Australia’s own Sir Mark Oliphant, former governor of South Australia and world-renowned physicist, was the first person to demonstrate fusion in a laboratory in 1934. He set the world on a course to cracking the code. The fusion scientists that are left in Australia want to know if we have the courage to finish what he started.