Lab experiments mimic a star's energy bursts

January 26, 2005
Ultracold plasma of 26,000 beryllium ions fluorescing when hit by a laser pulse

A key process that enhances the production of nuclear energy in the interior of dense stars has been re-created in the laboratory for the first time by physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The work may help scientists study topics such as nuclear fusion as a possible energy source and demonstrates a new method for studying and modeling dense stellar objects such as white dwarfs.

Image: This false color image shows an ultracold plasma of 26,000 beryllium ions fluorescing when hit by a laser pulse.

The NIST experiments, described in the Jan. 18 issue of Physical Review Letters,* involve temperature measurements of ultracold crystals as they melt. First, a "plasma" of tens of thousands of singly charged beryllium atoms is trapped using electric and magnetic fields and then cooled to almost absolute zero using lasers. When the lasers are turned off, the plasma begins to heat up. At 10 milliKelvin---just 0.01 degree above absolute zero---the temperature suddenly rises more than 10 billion times faster than predicted by theory. This burst of energy in a very cold system of highly interactive particles is believed to mimic events occurring inside the hot, dense interiors of stars, where plasmas of highly charged atoms undergo accelerated nuclear reactions.

Beryllium ions are frequently used in NIST research on topics such as development of future atomic clocks and quantum computing studies. Such rapid heating was first noticed in experiments attempting to prepare special states of beryllium ions that can improve the precision of an atomic clock.

Scientists have suspected for decades that the fusion of atoms that powers stars is enhanced when the plasmas at their cores somehow reduce the natural repulsion between charged ions, increasing the chances that pairs of ions will collide and produce nuclear reactions. NIST researchers found that, at a certain temperature, their trapped beryllium ions also collided more frequently and that the plasma temperature suddenly shot up. In this case, the collisions resulted in a transfer of energy between two types of motions made by the ions.

Publication: M.J. Jensen, T. Hasegawa, J.J. Bollinger, and D.H.E Dubin. 2004. Rapid heating of a strongly coupled plasma near the solid-liquid phase transition. Physical Review Letters, Jan. 18.

Source: NIST

Explore further: Tandem Ions May Lead the Way to Better Atomic Clocks

Related Stories

Tandem Ions May Lead the Way to Better Atomic Clocks

August 1, 2005

NIST Detects “Ticks” in Aluminum, with Help from Intermediary Atom Physicists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have used the natural oscillations of two different types ...

Sustained quantum information processing demonstrated

August 6, 2009

Raising prospects for building a practical quantum computer, physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have demonstrated sustained, reliable information processing operations on electrically charged ...

NIST demonstrates data 'repair kit' for quantum computers

December 4, 2004

A practical method for automatically correcting data-handling errors in quantum computers has been developed and demonstrated by physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Described in the Dec. 2, ...

Recommended for you

Heavy nitrogen molecules reveal planetary-scale tug-of-war

November 17, 2017

Nature whispers its stories in a faint molecular language, and Rice University scientist Laurence Yeung and colleagues can finally tell one of those stories this week, thanks to a one-of-a-kind instrument that allowed them ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.