Nuclear fusion (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Deuterium, the primary fuel used for nuclear fusion, is abundant in seawater. When a deuterium atom and a tritium atom, both isotopes of hydrogen, are fused together, helium is formed, with the release of a neutron and 17.6 million electronvolts (MEV) of energy. To undergo fusion, the interacting nuclei need kinetic energies on the order of 0.7 MEV to overcome the electrical repulsion between their positive charges. These energies are available at temperatures around 10 million kelvins (18 million degrees Fahrenheit), which poses a major problem for containment of the fusion fuel. In some experiments, the resulting plasma generated by heat from an electrical discharge is contained in the reactor core with appropriately shaped magnetic fields (magnetic confinement). In other experiments, fusion is initiated through the heating and compressing of pellets of the light nuclei with a high-intensity laser beam (inertial confinement). Methods of achieving fusion at lower temperatures, known as cold fusion, continue to be studied, but none has been found that produces more energy than is consumed in the fusion process.
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Environmental Advantages and Concerns (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The natural product resulting from the fusion of deuterium with tritium is helium, which poses no threat to life and does not contribute to global warming. Although tritium is radioactive, it has a short half-life of twelve years, has a very low amount of decay energy, and does not accumulate in the body. It is cycled out of the human body as water, with a biological half-life of seven to fourteen days. Since fusion requires precisely controlled conditions of temperature, pressure, and magnetic field parameters in order to generate net energy, there is no danger of any catastrophic radioactive accident, as heat generation in a fusion reactor would quickly stop if any of these parameters were disrupted by a reactor malfunction. In addition, since the total amount of fusion fuel in the reactor vessel is very small (a few grams) and the density of the plasma is low, there is no risk of a runaway reaction, because fusion would cease in a few seconds if fuel delivery were stopped.
Because of the generation of high-energy neutrons in the deuterium-tritium reaction, the typical structural materials of fusion reactors, such as stainless steel or titanium, tantalum, and niobium alloys, will become radioactive when bombarded by the neutrons. The half-lives of the resulting radioisotopes are typically less than those generated by nuclear fission. Most of this radioactive material would reside in the fusion reactor...
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Development of Commercial Fusion Reactors (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Despite fusion research that started during the 1950’s, a commercial fusion reactor will most likely not be available until at least 2050. Several deuterium-tritium fusion reactors using the tokamak design have been built as test devices, but none of them produce more thermal energy than the electrical energy consumed.
The United States, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and the European Union are joint funders of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is being constructed at Cadarache in southern France. ITER is planned to fuse atomic nuclei at extremely high temperatures inside of a giant electromagnetic ring. In May, 2009, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced the development of a high-energy laser system that can heat hydrogen atoms to temperatures that exist in the cores of stars. Such a system would provide the ability to produce more energy from controlled, inertially confined nuclear fusion than is necessary to produce the reaction.
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Braams, C. M., and P. E. Stott. Nuclear Fusion: Half a Century of Magnetic Confinement Fusion Research. Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002.
Bryan, Jeff C. Introduction to Nuclear Science. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2009.
McCracken, Garry, and Peter Stott. Fusion: The Energy of the Universe. Burlington, Mass.: Elsevier Academic, 2005.
Seife, Charles. Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. New York: Viking Press, 2008.
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Nuclear Fusion (Encyclopedia of Science)
Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form one heavier atomic nucleus. As an example, a proton and a neutron can be made to combine with each other to form a single particle called a deuteron. In general, the mass of the heavier product nucleus (the deuteron, for example) is less than the total mass of the two lighter nuclei (the proton and the neutron).
The mass that "disappears" during fusion is actually converted into energy. The amount of energy (E) produced in such a reaction can be calculated using Einstein's formula for the equivalence of mass and energy: E = mc2. This formula says even when the amount of mass (m) that disappears is very small, the amount of energy produced is very large. The reason is that the value of c2 (the speed of light squared) is very large, approximately 900,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters per second.
Naturally occurring fusion reactions
Scientists have long suspected that nuclear fusion reactions are common in the universe. The factual basis for such beliefs is that stars consist primarily of hydrogen gas. Over time, however, hydrogen gas is used up in stars, and helium gas is produced. One way to explain this phenomenon is to assume that hydrogen nuclei in the core of stars fuse with each other to form the nuclei of helium atoms. That is:...
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Nuclear Fusion (World of Earth Science)
Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form one heavier atomic nucleus. As an example, a proton (the nucleus of a hydrogen atom) and a neutron will, under the proper circumstances, combine to form a deuteron (the nucleus of an atom of "heavy" hydrogen). In general, the mass of the heavier product nucleus is less than the total mass of the two lighter nuclei. Nuclear fusion is the initial driving process for the process of nucelosynthesis.
When a proton and neutron combine, the mass of the resulting deuteron is 0.00239 atomic mass units (amu) less than the total mass of the proton and neutron combined. This "loss" of mass is expressed in the form of 2.23 MeV (million electron volts) of kinetic energy of the deuteron and other particles and as other forms of energy produced during the reaction. Nuclear fusion reactions are like nuclear fission reactions, therefore, in that some quantity of mass is transformed into energy. This is the reason stars "shine" (i.e., radiate tremendous amounts of electromagnetic energy into space).
The particles most commonly involved in nuclear fusion reactions include the proton, neutron, deuteron, a triton (a proton combined with two neutrons), a helium-3 nucleus (two protons combined with a neutron), and a helium-4 nucleus (two protons combined with two neutrons). Except for the neutron, all of these particles carry at least one positive electrical charge. That means that fusion reactions always require very large amounts of energy in order to overcome the force of repulsion between two like-charged particles. For example, in order to fuse two protons with each other, enough energy must be provided to overcome the force of repulsion between the two positively charged particles.
As early as the 1930s, a number of physicists considered the possibility that nuclear fusion reactions might be the mechanism by which energy is generated in the stars. No familiar type of chemical reaction, such as combustion or oxidation, could possibly explain the vast amounts of energy released by even the smallest star. In 1939, the German-American physicist Hans Bethe worked out the mathematics of energy generation in which a proton first fuses with a carbon atom to form a nitrogen atom. The reaction then continues through a series of five more steps, the net result of which is that four protons are consumed in the generation of one helium atom.
Bethe chose this sequence of reactions because it requires less energy than does the direct fusion of four protons and, thus, is more likely to take place in a star. Bethe was able to show that the total amount of energy released by this sequence of reactions was comparable to that which is actually observed in stars.
The Bethe carbon-cycle is by no means the only nuclear fusion reaction. A more direct approach, for example, would be one in which two protons fuse to form a deuteron. That deuteron could then fuse with a third proton to form a helium-3 nucleus. Finally, the helium-3 nucleus could fuse with a fourth proton to form a helium-4 nucleus. The net result of this sequence of reactions would be the combining of four protons (hydrogen nuclei) to form a single helium-4 nucleus. The only net difference between this reaction and Bethe's carbon cycle is the amount of energy involved in the overall set of reactions.
Other fusion reactions include D-D and D-T reactions. The former stands for deuterium-deuterium and involves the combination of two deuterium nuclei to form a helium-3 nucleus and a free neutron. The second reaction stands for deuterium-tritium and involves the combination of a deuterium nucleus and a tritium nucleus to produce a helium-4 nucleus and a free neutron.
The term "less energy" used to describe Bethe's choice of nuclear reactions is relative, however, since huge amounts of energy must be provided in order to bring about any kind of fusion reaction. In fact, the reason that fusion reactions can occur in stars is that the temperatures in their interiors are great enough to provide the energy needed to bring about fusion. Since those temperatures generally amount to a few million degrees, fusion reactions are also known as thermonu-clear (thermo = heat) reactions. The heat to drive a thermonu-clear reaction is created during the conversion of mass to energy during other thermonuclear reactions.
The understanding that fusion reactions might be responsible for energy production in stars brought the accompanying realization that such reactions might be a very useful source of energy for human needs. The practical problems of building a fusion power plant are incredible, however, and scientists are still a long way from achieving a containment vessel or field in which controlled fusion reactions could take place. A much simpler challenge, however, is to construct a "fusion power plant" that does not need to be controlled, that is, a fusion bomb.
Scientists who worked on the first fission (atomic) bomb during World War II were aware of the potential for building an even more powerful bomb that operated on fusion principles. A fusion bomb uses a fission bomb as a trigger (a source of heat and pressure to create a fusion chain reaction. In the microseconds following a fission explosion, fusion begins to occur within the casing surrounding the fission bomb. Protons, deuterons, and tritons begin fusing with each other, releasing more energy, and initiating other fusion reactions among other hydrogen isotopes. The original explosion of the fission bomb would have ignited a small star-like reaction in the casing surrounding it.
From a military standpoint, the fusion bomb had one powerful advantage over the fission bomb. For technical reasons, there is a limit to the size one can make a fission bomb. However, there is no technical limit on the size of a fusion bombne simply makes the casing surrounding the fission bomb larger. On August 20, 1953, the Soviet Union announced the detonation of the world's first fusion bomb. It was about 1,000 times more powerful than was the fission bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima less than a decade earlier. Since that date, both the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States have stockpiled thousands of fusion bombs and fusion missile warheads. The manufacture, maintenance, and destruction of these weapons remain a source of scientific and geopolitical debate.
With research on fusion weapons ongoing, attempts were also being made to develop peaceful uses for nuclear fusion. The containment vessel problems remain daunting because at the temperatures at which fusion occurs, known materials vaporize instantly. Traditionally, two general approaches have been developed to solve this problem: magnetic and inertial containment.
One way to control that plasma is with a magnetic field. One can design such a field so that a swirling hot mass of plasma within it can be held in a specified shape. Other proposed methods of control include the use of suspended microballoons that are then bombarded by the laser, electron, or atomic beam to cause implosion. During implosion, enough energy is produced to initiate fusion.
The production of useful nuclear fusion energy depends on three factors: temperature, containment time, and energy release. That is, it is first necessary to raise the temperature of the fuel (the hydrogen isotopes) to a temperature of about 100 million degrees. Then, it is necessary to keep the fuel suspended at that temperature long enough for fusion to begin. Finally, some method must be found for tapping off the energy produced by fusion.
In the late twentieth century, scientists began to explore approaches to fusion power that departed from magnetic and inertial confinement concepts. One such approach was called the PBFA process. In this machine, electric charge is allowed to accumulate in capacitors and then discharged in 40-nanosecond micropulses. Lithium ions are accelerated by means of these pulses and forced to collide with deuterium and tritium targets. Fusion among the lithium and hydrogen nuclei takes place, and energy is released. However, the PBFA approach to nuclear fusion has been no more successful than has that of more traditional methods.
In March of 1989, two University of Utah electro-chemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, reported that they had obtained evidence for the occurrence of nuclear fusion at room temperatures (i.e., cold fusion). During the electrolysis of heavy water (deuterium oxide), it appeared that the fusion of deuterons was made possible by the presence of palladium electrodes used in the reaction. If such an observation could have been confirmed by other scientists, it would have been truly revolutionary. It would have meant that energy could be obtained from fusion reactions at moderate temperatures. The Pons-Fleischmann discovery was the subject of immediate and intense scrutiny by other scientists around the world. It soon became apparent, however, that evidence for cold fusion could not consistently be obtained by other researchers. A number of alternative explanations were developed by scientists for the apparent fusion results that Pons and Fleischmann believed they had obtained and most researchers now assert that Pons and Fleischmann's report of "cold fusion" was an error and that the results reported were due to other chemical reactions that take place during the electrolysis of the heavy water.
See also Atom; Atomic mass and weight; Atomic number; Atomic theory; Big Bang theory; Chemical elements; Chemistry; Electricity and magnetism; Energy transformations; Radioactive waste storage (geological considerations); Radioactivity