The fusing of small atomic nuclei into larger ones, with the associated release of particles carrying a lot of motion-energy, is the mechanism that powers the Sun’s furnace, and that of other stars. This was first suspected in the 1920’s, and confirmed in the 1930s.
Nuclear fission (the breaking of larger atomic nuclei into smaller pieces) was discovered in the 1930s, and used to generate energy in 1942. Work on fission in settings both uncontrolled (i.e. bombs) and controlled (ie. power plants) proceeded rapidly; bombs unfortunately were quickly designed and built during World War II, while useful power plants were already operating by 1951. Meanwhile work on fusion also proceeded rapidly; in the uncontrolled setting, the first bomb using fusion (triggered by a fission bomb!) was already made in 1951, and in a flash of a decade, huge numbers of hydrogen bombs filled the arsenals of superpowers large and small. But controlled fusion for power plants… Ah.
Had it been as easy to control fusion as it was to control fission, we’d have fusion plants everywhere; fossil fuels would be consigned only to certain forms of transportation, and the climate crisis would be far less serious than it is right now. But unfortunately, it has been 70 years of mostly bad news — tragic news, really, for the planet.
But finally we have a little glimmer of hope. On December 5th, somebody finally managed, without using a bomb, to get more fusion-generated energy out of an object than the energy they had to put into it.
[UPDATE: Not really. Though this was a success and a milestone, it wasn’t nearly as good as advertised. Yes, more energy came out of the fusing material than was put into the fusing material. But it took far more energy to make the necessary laser light in the first place — 300 megajoules of energy off the electricity grid, compared to a gain from the fusing material of about 1 megajoule. So overall it was still a big net loss, even though locally, at the fusing material, it was a net gain. See this link, in particular the third figure, which shows that the largest energy cost was electricity from the grid to run the lasers. In short, well, it’s still a good day for fusion, but we are even further from power plants than we were led to believe today.]
Poster Child for Particle Physics
In the Sun and similar stars, fusion proceeds through several processes in which protons (the nuclei of the simplest form of hydrogen) are converted to neutrons and combine with other protons to form mainly helium nuclei (two protons and two neutrons). Other important nuclei are deuterium D (a version of hydrogen with a proton and neutron stuck together), tritium T (another version with a proton plus two neutrons — which is unstable, typically lasting about 12 years), and Helium-3 (two protons plus one neutron.)
Fusion is a fascinating process, because all four of the famous forces of nature are needed. [The fifth, the Higgs force, plays no role, though as is so often the case, the Higgs field is secretly crucial.] In a sense, it’s a poster child for our understanding of how the cosmos works. Consider sunshine:
- We need gravity to hold the Sun together, and to crush its center to the point that its temperature reaches well over ten million degrees.
- We need electromagnetism to produce the light that carries energy to the Sun’s surface and sunshine to Earth.
- We need the strong nuclear force to make protons and neutrons, and to combine them into other simple nuclei such as deuterium, tritium and helium.
- We need the weak nuclear force to convert the abundant protons into neutrons (along with a positron [i.e. an anti-electron] and a neutrino.)
How can we be sure this really happens inside the Sun? There are quite a few ways, but perhaps the most direct is that we observe the neutrinos, which (unlike everything else that’s made in the process) escape from the Sun’s core in vast numbers. Though very difficult to detect on Earth, they are occasionally observed. By now, studies of these neutrinos, as here by the Borexino experiment, are definitive. Everything checks out.
In the recent experiment on Earth, gravity’s role is a little more indirect — obviously we wouldn’t have a planet on which to live and laboratories in which to do experiments without it. But it’s electromagnetism which does the holding and crushing of the material. The role of the strong and weak nuclear forces is similar, though instead of starting with mostly protons, the method that made fusion this week uses the weak nuclear force long before the experiment to make the neutrons needed in deuterium and tritium. The actual moment of fusion involves the strong nuclear force, in which
- D + T –> He + n
i.e. one deuterium nucleus plus one tritium nucleus (a total of two protons and three neutrons) are recombined to make one helium nucleus and one neutron, which come out with more motion-energy than the initial D and T nuclei start with.
The Promise of Endless Cheap Safe[r] Power?
The breakthrough this week? Finally, after decades of promises and disappointments, workers at a US lab, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, working at the National Ignition Facility, have gotten significantly more energy out of fusion than they put in. How this works is described by the lab here. The steps are: make a pellet stocked with D and T; fire up a set of lasers and amplify them to enormous power; aim them into a chamber containing the pellet, heating the chamber to millions of degrees and causing it to emit X-rays (high-energy photons); the blast of X-rays blows off the outer layer of the pellet, which [action-reaction!] causes the inner core of the pellet to greatly compress; in the high temperature and density of the pellet’s core, fusion spontaneously begins and heats the rest of the pellet, causing even more fusion.
Not as easy as it sounds. For a long time they’ve been getting a dud, or just a little fusion. But finally, the energy from fusion has exceeded the energy of the initial lasers by a substantial amount — 50%.
This one momentary success is far from a power plant. But you can’t make a power plant without first making power. So December 5th, eighty years and three days after fission’s first good day, was a good day for fusion on Earth, maybe the first one ever.
If this strategy for making fusion will ever lead to a power plant, this process will have to repeated over and over very rapidly, with the high-energy particles that are created along the way being directed somewhere where they can heat water and turn a steam turbine, from which electric current can be created as it is in many power plants. Leaving aside the major technical challenges, one should understand that this does not come without radioactive pollution; the walls of the container vessel in which the nuclear reactions take place, and other materials inside, will become radioactive over time, and will have to be disposed of with care, as with any radioactive waste. But it’s still vastly safer than a fission power plant, such as are widespread today. Why?
First, the waste from a fission plant is suitable for making nuclear weapons; it has to be not only buried safely but also guarded. Waste from a fusion plant, though still radioactive, is not useful for that purpose.
Second, if a fission plant malfunctions, its nuclear chain-reaction can start running away, getting hotter and hotter until the fuel melts, breaks through the vessel that contains it, and contaminates ground, air and water. By contrast, if a fusion plant malfunctions, its nuclear reactions just… stop.
And third, mining for uranium is bad for the environment (and uranium itself can be turned into a fuel for nuclear weapons.) Mining for hydrogen involves taking some water and passing electric current through it. Admittedly it’s a bit more complicated than that to get the deuterium and especially the tritium you need — the tritium be obtained from lithium, which does require mining — but still, less digging giant holes into mountains and contaminating groundwater with heavy metals.
Meanwhile, both forms of nuclear power have the advantage that they don’t dump loads of carbon into the atmosphere, and avoid the kind of oil spills we saw this week in Kansas.
So even though we are a long way from having nuclear fusion as a power source, and even though there will be some nuclear waste to deal with, there are good reasons to note this day. Someday we might look back on it as the beginning of a transformed economy, a cleaner atmosphere, and a saved planet.