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Fusion power

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This is a factual article as opposed to fiction or scenario. It describes the current state of the field and explains expected future developments without speculation or fantasy.
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Problem

For a fusion reaction to sustain itself, enough of the energy produced must stay keeping the fuel hot. For this to happen, the fuel must be 'confined'. A criterion for sufficient confinement is the Lawson criterion.

Methods of fuel confinement

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. Even if the more reactive fuel deuterium were used, a mass greater than that of the planet Jupiter would be needed.

Magnetic confinement - Since plasmas are very good electrical conductors, magnetic fields can also confine fusion fuel. A variety of magnetic configurations can be used, the most basic distinction being between mirror confinement and toroidal confinement, especially tokamaks and stellarators.

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.

Some other confinement principles have been investigated, such as muon-catalyzed fusion, the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor (inertial electrostatic confinement), and bubble fusion.

Methods to produce fusion

A variety of methods are known to affect nuclear fusion.

  • Some are "cold" in the strict sense that no part of the material is hot (except for the reaction products)
  • Some are "cold" in the limited sense that the bulk of the material is at a relatively low temperature and pressure but the reactants are not,
  • Some are "hot" fusion methods that create macroscopic regions of very high temperature and pressure.

Locally cold fusion

Muon-catalyzed fusion is a well established and reproducible fusion process that occurs at ordinary temperatures. It was studied in detail by Steven Jones in the early 1980s. It has not been reported to produce net energy. Net energy production from this reaction is not believed to be possible because of the energy required to create muons, their 2.2 µs half-life, and the chance that a muon will bind to the new alpha particle and thus stop catalyzing fusion.

Low energy nuclear reaction is a controversial line of research to produce nuclear fusion

Generally cold, locally hot fusion

Accelerator based light-ion fusion: Using particle accelerators it is possible to achieve particle kinetic energies sufficient to induce many light ion fusion reactions. Of particular relevance into this discussion are devices referred to as sealed-tube neutron generators. These small devices are miniature particle accelerators filled with deuterium and tritium gas in an arrangement which allows ions of these nuclei to be accelerated against hydride targets, also containing deuterium and tritium, where fusion takes place. Hundreds of neutron generators are produced annually for use in the petroleum industry where they are used in measurement equipment for locating and mapping oil reserves. Despite periodic reports in the popular press by scientists claiming to have invented "table-top" fusion machines, neutron generators have been around for half a century. The sizes of these devices vary, but the smallest instruments are often packaged in sizes smaller than a loaf of bread. These devices do not produce a net power output.

In sonoluminescence, acoustic shock waves create temporary bubbles that collapse shortly after creation, producing very high temperatures and pressures. In 2002, Rusi P. Taleyarkhan reported the possibility that bubble fusion occurs in those collapsing bubbles (aka sono fusion). As of 2005, experiments to determine whether fusion is occurring give conflicting results. If fusion is occurring, it is because the local temperature and pressure are sufficiently high to produce hot fusion.[2]

The Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor is a tabletop device in which fusion occurs. This fusion comes from high effective temperatures produced by electrostatic acceleration of ions. The device can be built inexpensively, but it too is unable to produce a net power output.

Antimatter-initialized fusion uses small amounts of antimatter to trigger a tiny fusion explosion. This has been studied primarily in the context of making nuclear pulse propulsion feasible. This is not near becoming a practical power source, due to the cost of manufacturing antimatter alone.

Pyroelectric fusion was reported in April 2005 by a team at UCLA. The scientists used a pyroelectric crystal heated from −34 to 7°C (−30 to 45°F), combined with a tungsten needle to produce an electric field of about 25 gigavolts per meter to ionize and accelerate deuterium nuclei into an erbium deuteride target. Though the energy of the deuterium ions generated by the crystal has not been directly measured, the authors used 100 keV (a temperature of about 109 K) as an estimate in their modeling.[3] At these energy levels, two deuterium nuclei can fuse together to produce a helium-3 nucleus, a 2.45 MeV neutron and bremsstrahlung. Although it makes a useful neutron generator, the apparatus is not intended for power generation since it requires far more energy than it produces. [4] [5] [6] [7]


Hot fusion

"Standard" "hot" fusion, in which the fuel reaches tremendous temperature and pressure inside a fusion reactor or nuclear weapon.

The methods in the second group are examples of non-equilibrium systems, in which very high temperatures and pressures are produced in a relatively small region adjacent to material of much lower temperature. In his doctoral thesis for MIT, Todd Rider did a theoretical study of all non-equilibrium fusion systems. He demonstrated that all such systems will leak energy at a rapid rate due to bremsstrahlung, radiation produced when electrons in the plasma hit other electrons or ions at a cooler temperature and suddenly decelerate. The problem is not as pronounced in a hot plasma because the range of temperatures, and thus the magnitude of the deceleration, is much lower.

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