Finally, a Fusion Reaction Has Generated More Energy Than Absorbed by The Fuel


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Quick primer on fusion:

Fusion occurs when two atomic nuclei join together to form a single nuclei. This can occur with any two nuclei, but in practice when we talk about fusion we're talking about two hydrogen nuclei (with one proton each) fusing to form a single helium nuclei (with two protons).

This is difficult however, because nuclei are not inclined to fuse. If they were, there'd be fusion occurring all over the place and all the hydrogen would have been turned into helium (and heavier) a long time ago. Nuclei do not want to fuse because nuclei are entirely protons and neutrons, and therefore always have a positive electric charge. Like charges repel, and therefore the electromagnetic force between two nuclei is always repulsive. This keeps them apart and not fusing.

Wait a minute, you ask. If the force is always repulsive, how do we get heavier elements at all? Wouldn't the protons in their nuclei be repeling each other and returning to hydrogen? Good question. And yes they would, if the electromagnetic force were the only force acting. There is another force however: The strong nuclear force. The strong nuclear force is stronger than the electromagnetic force, but only at very small distances. The strength of the electromagnetic force between two objects weakens as a function of the square of the distance between them (the well known inverse-square law which crops up a lot in physics). The strength of the strong nuclear force is more complicated, but the simplification is that it falls off faster than the square of the distance over the ranges being considered for fusion. This means that there is an inflection point, above which the electromagnetic force is stronger (and thus two protons will repel each other) and below which the strong nuclear force is stronger (and thus two protons will attract each other). The goal then is to get two nuclei inside this boundary distance from each other, at which point they will fuse.

As science is wont to do, we immediately looked at how nature accomplished this, so we can cheat off their homework and pass it off as our own. As it turns out, nature just assembled so much hydrogen in close proximity that the collective gravity of all that mass was greater than the electromagnetic force. It used gravity to crush the hydrogen together until the strong nuclear force took over.

...well shit. You can't exactly make a miniature star if the whole thing that makes a star a star is the fact that it is decidedly not miniature.

So we started looking for other ways. The first idea was to use inertia. The electromagnetic force isn't a brick wall, it's an influence on the velocity of the nucleus. If you think of it like throwing a ball into the wind, if you throw the ball hard enough, the wind won't be able to bring it to a stop before it gets to where you're trying to throw it. So too with a nucleus: get it going fast enough, and it'll bully its way through the electromagnetic repulsion and reach the coveted fusion boundary.

Mad scientists being the mad scientists that they are, they figured if you detonated a fission bomb in the right way, it would send a bunch of hydrogen all flying inward toward the same point at crazy high velocities and voila, you have fusion. Technically you have a thermonuclear bomb that can level a city, but we're not being picky here. Fusion has been achieved.

Inertial confinement fusion follows on this idea directly. In inertial confinement, the idea is to compress hydrogen in a similar way to a thermonuclear bomb, but in a much more controlled fashion. To that end powerful lasers are used to apply the implosion pressure, aimed at much smaller amounts of fusable hydrogen.

The second method is magnetic confinement. Rather than trying to implode your hydrogen all at once, the idea is to hold the high-temperature hydrogen (at this point a plasma) within a physical space long enough for the statistics of collision probaiblity to work out in your favor. Much like Temptation Island, if you can prevent their natural repulsion from sending them off in different directions, eventually they will form a union. The plasma is contained by creating strong magnetic fields that direct any wayward nuclei back into the containment area. The higher the temperature of the plasma, the faster the hydrogen moves and the more potential collisions it experiences in a given time period, but the more difficult it is to keep the plasma contained. The most promising design is the Tokamak, which is essentially a magnetic donut that doesn't let the plasma move in any direction but in a circle around the toroid. Move too far from the annular ring, and the strength of the magnetic field pushes you back toward the middle.

ITER is a tokamak. The breakthrough in this paper is using an inertial confinement device.

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