Thermonuclear fusion

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Thermonuclear fusion is the process of atoms combining or “fusing” together with huge amounts of heat. There are two forms of thermonuclear fusion: uncontrolled, in which the resulting energy is released in an uncontrolled manner, as it is in thermonuclear weapons ("hydrogen bombs") and in most stars; and controlled, where the fusion reactions take place in an environment allowing some or all of the energy released to be harnessed for constructive purposes.


Temperature requirements

Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of particles, so by heating the material it will gain energy. After reaching sufficient temperature, given by the Lawson criterion, the energy of accidental collisions within the plasma is high enough to overcome the Coulomb barrier and the particles may fuse together.

In a deuterium–tritium fusion reaction, for example, the energy necessary to overcome the Coulomb barrier is 0.1  MeV. Converting between energy and temperature shows that the 0.1 MeV barrier would be overcome at a temperature in excess of 1.2 billion kelvin.

There are two effects that are needed to lower the actual temperature. One is the fact that temperature is the average kinetic energy, implying that some nuclei at this temperature would actually have much higher energy than 0.1 MeV, while others would be much lower. It is the nuclei in the high-energy tail of the velocity distribution that account for most of the fusion reactions. The other effect is quantum tunnelling. The nuclei do not actually have to have enough energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier completely. If they have nearly enough energy, they can tunnel through the remaining barrier. For these reasons fuel at lower temperatures will still undergo fusion events, at a lower rate.

Thermonuclear fusion is one of the methods being researched in the attempts to produce fusion power. If thermonuclear fusion becomes favorable to use, it would significantly reduce the world's carbon footprint.


The key problem in achieving thermonuclear fusion is how to confine the hot plasma. Due to the high temperature, the plasma cannot be in direct contact with any solid material, so it has to be located in a vacuum. Also, high temperatures imply high pressures. The plasma tends to expand immediately and some force is necessary to act against it. This force can take one of three forms: gravitation in stars, magnetic forces in magnetic confinement fusion reactors, or inertial as the fusion reaction may occur before the plasma starts to expand, so the plasma's inertia is keeping the material together.

Gravitational confinement

One force capable of confining the fuel well enough to satisfy the Lawson criterion is gravity. The mass needed, however, is so great that gravitational confinement is only found in stars—the least massive stars capable of sustained fusion are red dwarfs, while brown dwarfs are able to fuse deuterium and lithium if they are of sufficient mass. In stars heavy enough, after the supply of hydrogen is exhausted in their cores, their cores (or a shell around the core) start fusing helium to carbon. In the most massive stars (at least 8–11 solar masses), the process is continued until some of their energy is produced by fusing lighter elements to iron. As iron has one of the highest binding energies, reactions producing heavier elements are generally endothermic. Therefore significant amounts of heavier elements are not formed during stable periods of massive star evolution, but are formed in supernova explosions. Some lighter stars also form these elements in the outer parts of the stars over long periods of time, by absorbing energy from fusion in the inside of the star, by absorbing neutrons that are emitted from the fusion process.

All of the elements heavier than iron have some potential energy to release, in theory. At the extremely heavy end of element production, these heavier elements can produce energy in the process of being split again back toward the size of iron, in the process of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission thus releases energy which has been stored, sometimes billions of years before, during stellar nucleosynthesis.

Magnetic confinement

Electrically charged particles (such as fuel ions) will follow magnetic field lines (see Guiding centre). The fusion fuel can therefore be trapped using a strong magnetic field. A variety of magnetic configurations exist, including the toroidal geometries of tokamaks and stellarators and open-ended mirror confinement systems.

Inertial confinement

A third confinement principle is to apply a rapid pulse of energy to a large part of the surface of a pellet of fusion fuel, causing it to simultaneously "implode" and heat to very high pressure and temperature. If the fuel is dense enough and hot enough, the fusion reaction rate will be high enough to burn a significant fraction of the fuel before it has dissipated. To achieve these extreme conditions, the initially cold fuel must be explosively compressed. Inertial confinement is used in the hydrogen bomb, where the driver is x-rays created by a fission bomb. Inertial confinement is also attempted in "controlled" nuclear fusion, where the driver is a laser, ion, or electron beam, or a Z-pinch. Another method is to use conventional high explosive material to compress a fuel to fusion conditions. [1] [2] The UTIAS explosive-driven-implosion facility was used to produce stable, centred and focused hemispherical implosions [3] to generate neutrons from D-D reactions. The simplest and most direct method proved to be in a predetonated stoichiometric mixture of deuterium-oxygen. The other successful method was using a miniature Voitenko compressor, [4] where a plane diaphragm was driven by the implosion wave into a secondary small spherical cavity that contained pure deuterium gas at one atmosphere. [5]

Electrostatic confinement

There are also electrostatic confinement fusion devices. These devices confine ions using electrostatic fields. The best known is the fusor. This device has a cathode inside an anode wire cage. Positive ions fly towards the negative inner cage, and are heated by the electric field in the process. If they miss the inner cage they can collide and fuse. Ions typically hit the cathode, however, creating prohibitory high conduction losses. Also, fusion rates in fusors are very low due to competing physical effects, such as energy loss in the form of light radiation. [6] Designs have been proposed to avoid the problems associated with the cage, by generating the field using a non-neutral cloud. These include a plasma oscillating device, [7] a Penning trap and the polywell. [8] The technology is relatively immature, however, and many scientific and engineering questions remain.

See also

Related Research Articles

Nuclear fusion Process naturally occurring in stars where atomic nucleons combine

Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles. The difference in mass between the reactants and products is manifested as either the release or the absorption of energy. This difference in mass arises due to the difference in atomic binding energy between the nuclei before and after the reaction. Fusion is the process that powers active or main sequence stars and other high-magnitude stars, where large amounts of energy are released.

Fusion rocket Rocket driven by nuclear fusion power

A fusion rocket is a theoretical design for a rocket driven by fusion propulsion that could provide efficient and sustained acceleration in space without the need to carry a large fuel supply. The design requires fusion power technology beyond current capabilities, and much larger and more complex rockets.

Inertial confinement fusion Branch of fusion energy research

Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is a fusion energy research program that initiates nuclear fusion reactions by compressing and heating targets filled with thermonuclear fuel. These are pellets typically containing a mixture of deuterium 2H and tritium 3H. In current experimental reactors, fuel pellets are about the size of a pinhead and contain around 10 milligrams of fuel. Bigger power reactors are envisaged for the future as affordable safe clean carbon-free energy sources of limitless scale burning the deuterium plentiful in the oceans.

Fusor An apparatus to create nuclear fusion

A fusor is a device that uses an electric field to heat ions to nuclear fusion conditions. The machine induces a voltage between two metal cages, inside a vacuum. Positive ions fall down this voltage drop, building up speed. If they collide in the center, they can fuse. This is one kind of an inertial electrostatic confinement device – a branch of fusion research.

Fusion power Electricity generation through nuclear fusion

Fusion power is a proposed form of power generation that would generate electricity by using heat from nuclear fusion reactions. In a fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing energy. Devices designed to harness this energy are known as fusion reactors.

This timeline of nuclear fusion is an incomplete chronological summary of significant events in the study and use of nuclear fusion.

Inertial electrostatic confinement Fusion power research concept

Inertial electrostatic confinement, or IEC, is a class of fusion power devices that use electric fields to confine the plasma rather than the more common approach using magnetic fields found in magnetic fusion energy (MFE) designs. Most IEC devices directly accelerate their fuel to fusion conditions, thereby avoiding energy losses seen during the longer heating stages of MFE devices. In theory, this makes them more suitable for using alternative aneutronic fusion fuels, which offer a number of major practical benefits and makes IEC devices one of the more widely studied approaches to fusion.

Lawson criterion Criterion for igniting a nuclear fusion chain reaction

The Lawson criterion is a figure of merit used in nuclear fusion research. It compares the rate of energy being generated by fusion reactions within the fusion fuel to the rate of energy losses to the environment. When the rate of production is higher than the rate of loss, and enough of that energy is captured by the system, the system is said to be ignited.

Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor former experimental tokamak at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) was an experimental tokamak built at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) circa 1980 and entering service in 1982. TFTR was designed with the explicit goal of reaching scientific breakeven, the point where the heat being released from the fusion reactions in the plasma is equal or greater than the heating being supplied to the plasma by external devices to warm it up.

A boosted fission weapon usually refers to a type of nuclear bomb that uses a small amount of fusion fuel to increase the rate, and thus yield, of a fission reaction. The neutrons released by the fusion reactions add to the neutrons released due to fission, allowing for more neutron-induced fission reactions to take place. The rate of fission is thereby greatly increased such that much more of the fissile material is able to undergo fission before the core explosively disassembles. The fusion process itself adds only a small amount of energy to the process, perhaps 1%.

Aneutronic fusion Any form of fusion power in which very little of the energy released is carried by neutrons

Aneutronic fusion is any form of fusion power in which very little of the energy released is carried by neutrons. While the lowest-threshold nuclear fusion reactions release up to 80% of their energy in the form of neutrons, aneutronic reactions release energy in the form of charged particles, typically protons or alpha particles. Successful aneutronic fusion would greatly reduce problems associated with neutron radiation such as damaging ionizing radiation, neutron activation, and requirements for biological shielding, remote handling and safety.

The beta of a plasma, symbolized by β, is the ratio of the plasma pressure to the magnetic pressure. The term is commonly used in studies of the Sun and Earth's magnetic field, and in the field of fusion power designs.

Migma, sometimes migmatron or migmacell, was a proposed colliding beam fusion reactor designed by Bogdan Maglich in 1969. Migma uses self-intersecting beams of ions from small particle accelerators to force the ions to fuse. Similar systems using larger collections of particles, up to microscopic dust sized, were referred to as "macrons". Migma was an area of some research in the 1970s and early 1980s, but lack of funding precluded further development.

The polywell is a proposed design for a fusion reactor using an electric field to heat ions to fusion conditions.

Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) is a fusion power concept that combines features of magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) and inertial confinement fusion (ICF). Like the magnetic approach, the fusion fuel is confined at lower density by magnetic fields while it is heated into a plasma. As with the inertial approach, fusion is initiated by rapidly squeezing the target to greatly increase fuel density and temperature. Although the resulting density is far lower than in ICF, it is thought that the combination of longer confinement times and better heat retention will let MTF operate, yet be easier to build. The term magneto-inertial fusion (MIF) is similar, but encompasses a wider variety of arrangements. The two terms are often applied interchangeably to experiments.

The Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR) is a fusion power project at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Its high-beta configuration, which implies that the ratio of plasma pressure to magnetic pressure is greater than or equal to 1, allows a compact fusion reactor (CFR) design and expedited development.

Colliding beam fusion (CBF), or colliding beam fusion reactor (CBFR), is a class of fusion energy concepts that are based on two or more intersecting beams of fusion fuel ions that are independently accelerated to fusion energies using a variety of particle accelerator designs or other means. One of the beams may be replaced by a static target, in which case the approach is known as accelerator based fusion or beam-target fusion, but the physics is the same as colliding beams.

Heavy ion fusion is a fusion energy concept that uses a stream of high-energy ions from a particle accelerator to rapidly heat and compress a small pellet of fusion fuel. It is a subclass of the larger inertial confinement fusion (ICF) approach, replacing the more typical laser systems with an accelerator.

The history of nuclear fusion began early in the 20th century as an inquiry into how stars powered themselves and expanded to incorporate a broad inquiry into the nature of matter and energy, as potential applications expanded to include warfare, energy production and rocket propulsion.


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