New 'snapshots' aid quest for fusion energy

February 28, 2008
New 'snapshots' aid quest for fusion energy
This schematic drawing shows the system MIT physicists are using to study tiny implosions of hydrogen fuel. On the left, protons streaming away from the far-left implosion travel through magnetic and electric fields generated by the other implosion. On the right is the resulting image of the fields, with the compressed hydrogen pellet in the center. Image courtesy / Richard Petrasso

Physicists at MIT and the University of Rochester have devised a new way to take "snapshots" of the high-energy, high-temperature reactions seen as key to achieving the long-held dream of controlled nuclear fusion.

The work, which is reported in the Feb. 28 issue of Science, could one day help scientists harness nuclear fusion as an energy source. It could also shed light on basic questions about the physics of stars.

Nuclear fusion-the process by which atomic particles clump together to form a heavier nucleus-releases an enormous amount of energy (roughly one million times of that of a chemical reaction). When nuclear fusion occurs in an uncontrolled chain reaction, it can result in a thermonuclear blast-such as the one generated by hydrogen bombs.

Achieving controlled nuclear fusion, which could be a safe and reliable source of nearly limitless energy, is one of the "holy grails" of high-energy-density physics, according to Richard Petrasso, senior research scientist at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center and an author of the Science paper.

For decades, scientists at MIT and elsewhere have been working toward that goal by setting off miniature implosions that recreate the high temperatures and densities found in stars.

One way physicists create the implosions is by bombarding tiny pellets of hydrogen fuel with lasers. Inside the pellet, the compressed gas reaches about 100 million degrees, or about seven times hotter than the center of the sun. Under certain conditions, the gas's density can reach 1,000 grams per cubic centimeter (50 times the density of gold).

"It really creates conditions you can only find in the interior of stars," Petrasso said.

Until now, physicists have largely been able to study the implosions only by measuring the particles released by the imploding gas, such as protons, X-rays, neutrons and photons. Alternatively, they have also studied implosions with X-rays, creating images of the compressed pellets.

The new detection method allows scientists, for the first time, to take a snapshot of the electric and magnetic fields generated by the implosion.

The process requires two implosions: one to be studied, and a second that serves to illuminate the first implosion. The first implosion lasts about three nanoseconds (billionths of a second) and the second one can be timed to go off anytime within those three nanoseconds.

The second implosion generates a stream of protons that all have the same energy level, 15 million electron volts. Because protons are charged, their paths are influenced by the fields surrounding the first implosion. These protons can be recorded, just like photons, to create an image of the fields' effects. Photons, however, are unaffected by such fields and thus cannot detect their presence.

"It's a way of capturing images with protons instead of photons," Petrasso said.

Such images can help scientists figure out whether the implosions are close to symmetrical.

To achieve nuclear fusion, the implosion must occur with near-perfect symmetry. Such an event, also known as ignition, has never been demonstrated experimentally.

If ignition occurs, between 10 and 150 million joules of fusion energy would be released. (150 million joules is about the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline, released from something the size of a small pin head.)

Most of this work was conducted using a laser system at the Lab for Laser Electronics at the University of Rochester. The laser system, called Omega, is about the size of a football field.

The National Ignition Facility, where scientists hope to achieve ignition for the first time, is scheduled to open at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in 2010. Assuming ignition is achieved in the 2010-2012 time scale, scientists will begin directly addressing how one might utilize this prodigious energy for electricity generation.

Lead author of the Science paper is Ryan Rygg, formerly a Physics Department graduate student and a recent PhD recipient at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) now at Lawrence Livermore. Other MIT authors are Frederick Seåguin and Johan Frenje, research scientists at the PSFC; Chikang Li, principal research scientist at the PSFC; and Mario Manuel, graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics.

Source: MIT, by Anne Trafton

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1 / 5 (2) Feb 29, 2008
Photons ARE effected by electromagnetic fields.
not rated yet Feb 29, 2008
Don't understand how you can get more energy out than you put in... isn't this also a violation of the conservation of energy?
5 / 5 (2) Feb 29, 2008
rekna, easy answer - It's like a fire place. You're just burning hydrogen instead of wood. You only put in a little energy (light a match [ignition]) but get a lot out - roaring fireplace.

It's just that the ratio of energy you get out of hydrogen instead of wood is much, much greater. ...And of course it's not "combustion."
not rated yet Feb 29, 2008
Photons are effected by electromagnetic fields; however, the protons can penetrate the reaction containment much better than photons.
Check this link out for more . . .
not rated yet Mar 14, 2008
All this `techno-progress' is a continual smokescreen to hide the reality of 60 years of failure by the world's premier scientific laboratories to make significant progress toward fusion-based electric power generation.
This is made all the more obscene in the aftermath of last year's tragic death of
Dr. Robert Buzzard (EMC2, Inc.), just after his company had made a critical, practical component of a fusion reactor work for the first time, after 30 years hard work, only to have the NAVY fail to renew his grant.
In reality, ITER, MIT, Livermore, ad nauseam, have ulterior motives for fusion research, none of which have anything remotely related to do with alleviating the world's energy crisis, and everything to do with their own agendas.
not rated yet May 26, 2008
This is an interesting development, and potentially quite key to learning more about the practical mechanics of fusion. Nice idea too... use the tech. of electron microscopes to "see" a scattered proton (rather than an electron) field, and get a picture of what is happening during a D2-pellet implosion. Obvious idea - once someone has done it - but I am encouraged by this type of work. It is a very positive thing, when one sees physics research that involves taking a hard look at what is actually taking place, rather than the
endless banter of irrelevence that seems to come from many theory-mongers. Science is about explaining what you can see, not seeing what you can explain. Direct observation research is desperately needed, especially in the field of fusion work. Previous comment by JIMBO is well taken. But I did not know that Dr. Bussard had
died. That is sad, as his EMC2 group did have
some success with a gridless fusor design, from
what I have heard.
Visualization of phenomenon really are very key. The early Rutherford-Geiger (and Geiger-Marsden)
experiments, in which the scattering of alpha
particles was observed directly by scintillations
on a zinc-sulfide screen, are excellent historical examples of the value of direct observation. As every physics student knows, the unexpectedly wide deflections observed by Geiger, gave us our modern picture of the nuclear atom. This "back scattering" was described by Rutherford as: "It is just as surprising as if a gunner had fired a shell at a single piece of paper, and for some reason or other, the projectile bounded back again."
Geiger and Marsden had used thin foils of gold, silver and copper, and determined that roughly one alpha particle out of 8000 was widely deflected, and that the probability of deflection increased as they added to the number of foils.
And so J.J. Thomson's "plum-pudding" atomic model gave way to Rutherford's model of the modern nuclear atom. And this all happened because the researchers took a hard look at what was actually happening. So, I consider these proton "explodographs" to be quite a significant development. Perhaps we will get lucky, and anomalous or unexpected event will be observed.

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