Magazine article Science News

Nuclear Fusion Flares on a Tabletop

Magazine article Science News

Nuclear Fusion Flares on a Tabletop

Article excerpt

The dream of sparking tabletop nuclear fusion has become a reality, promising not commercial energy but a promising scientific payoff.

The feat took place on a lab bench only about 1 meter wide and 3.5 meters long. There, scientists zapped clusters of atoms of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, with brief but extremely powerful laser pulses.

By focusing flickers of energy lasting much less than a trillionth of second into an extremely small volume, the laser beam heats atom clusters to tens of millions of degrees Celsius, report Todd Ditmire and his colleagues at Lawrence Livermore (Calif.) National Laboratory.

The laser pulse can strip atoms of their electrons, creating a cigar-shaped speck of hot, ionized gas, or plasma. The superheated clusters explode, bashing deuterium ions together with high enough velocity to fuse into helium ions. For each helium ion formed, the fusion reaction also spits out a neutron with a characteristic energy.

The experimenters detected emission of approximately 10,000 neutrons with the predicted energy per laser pulse. Ditmire described the experiment on March 23 to a crowded session at the Centennial Meeting of the American Physical Society in Atlanta.

"It's a great achievement," comments Gerard A. Mourou of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Mourou invented a means to amplify laser pulses to extremely high intensities, thus paving the way for lasers such as the one used by the Livermore scientists (SN: 2/10/96, p. …

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