Nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, happens when nuclear reactions between light elements produce heavier ones. It’s also happening — at a smaller scale — in a Colorado State University laboratory
Using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, CSU scientists and collaborators have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab.
They have achieved record-setting efficiency for the generation of neutrons — chargeless sub-atomic particles resulting from the fusion process.
Their work is detailed in a paper published in Nature Communications, and is led by Jorge Rocca, University Distinguished Professor in electrical and computer engineering and physics. The paper’s first author is Alden Curtis, a CSU graduate student.
They use their fast, pulsed laser to irradiate a target of invisible wires and instantly create extremely hot, dense plasmas — with conditions approaching those inside the sun. These plasmas drive fusion reactions, giving off helium and flashes of energetic neutrons.
In their Nature Communications experiment, the CSU team produced a record number of neutrons per unit of laser energy — about 500 times better than experiments that use conventional flat targets from the same material.
Their laser’s target was an array of nanowires made out of a material called deuterated polyethylene. The material is similar to the widely used polyethylene plastic, but its common hydrogen atoms are substituted by deuterium, a heavier kind of hydrogen atom.
CSU said making fusion neutrons efficiently, at a small scale, could lead to advances in neutron-based imaging, and neutron probes to gain insight on the structure and properties of materials. The results also contribute to understanding interactions of ultra-intense laser light with matter.
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