Smarter Cambridge Transport

Is the future of electric vehicles in boron, not lithium?

With the focus on redesigning cars, buses and HGVs around lithium ion batteries, part of this Government’s Road to Zero strategy, there has been much discussion about whether there is enough lithium and cobalt in the world to replace the two billion petrol/diesel vehicles on the world’s roads today.

But there may be a better solution, requiring just boron and hydrogen. Boron is plentiful, with over a billion tonnes of reserves in Turkey (compared with around fifteen million tonnes of lithium worldwide). As for hydrogen, water is two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen, so no shortage of that.

What’s the secret? It’s hydrogen–boron fusion. This only became possible recently with the invention of the Chirped Pulse Amplification laser, for which Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland received a Nobel prize in 2018.

Two features work strongly in favour of this novel form of fusion: firstly, it produces no radioactive waste; secondly, it can produce electricity directly. The reaction produces alpha particles – helium atoms lacking electrons. They want to grab electrons to neutralise their charge, which means they can drive an electric current through a circuit – such as a vehicle’s drive motors – attached to the fusion vessel. Despite the seemingly infinite improbability, drive engines like this could be ready within a decade.

A paper published by Cambridge University Press in 2017 describes a simulation in which just 14 milligrams of hydrogen and boron-11 could produce 300 kWh of energy. The long-range Tesla Model S can do 370 miles with a 100kWh battery. So, a gram of hydrogen-boron fuel could take you nearly 80,000 miles. Re-fuelling would be a chore no more.

Before you say there’s not enough room on the roads for everyone to drive fusion cars, the benefits would be even greater for buses and trains: no downtime to re-fuel and no overhead lines to get snagged. Once driverless technology has matured, public and shared transport will provide cheap and space-efficient transport for everyone.

When, in April 2030, we look back to the future we planned for, will we think we were fools to bet on lithium rather than boron?

Smarter Cambridge Transport

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