What is a fusion reaction?

The Copernican
February 21, 2014

Last week, the National Ignition Facility, USA, announced that it had breached the first step in triggering a fusion reaction. But what is a fusion reaction? Here are some answers from Prof. Bora – which require prior knowledge of high-school physics and chemistry. We’ll start from their basics (with my comments in square brackets).

What is meant by a nuclear reaction?

A process in which two nuclei or a nucleus and a subatomic particle collide to produce one or more different nucleii is known as a nuclear reaction. It implies an induced change in at least in one nucleus and does not apply to any radioactive decay.

What is the difference between fission and fusion reactions?

The main difference between fusion and fission reactions is that fission is the splitting of an atom into two or more smaller ones while fusion is the fusing of two or more smaller atoms into a larger one. They are two different types of energy-releasing reactions in which energy is released from powerful atomic bonds between the particles within the nucleus.

Which elements are permitted to undergo nuclear fusion?

Technically any two light nuclei below iron [in the Periodic Table] can be used for fusion, although some nuclei are better than most others when it comes to energy production. Like in fission, the energy in fusion comes from the “mass defect” (loss in mass) due to the increase in binding energy [that holds subatomic particles inside an atom together]. The greater the change in binding energy (from lower binding energy to higher binding energy), more the mass lost, results in more output energy.

What are the steps of a nuclear fusion reaction?

To create fusion energy, extremely high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius) are required to overcome the electrostatic force of repulsion that exists between the light nuclei, popularly known as the Coulomb’s barrier [due to the protons’ positive charges]. Fusion, therefore, can occur for any two nuclei provided the temperature, density of the plasma [the superheated soup of charged particles] and confinement durations are met.

Under what conditions will a fusion chain-reaction occur?

When, say, a deuterium (D) and tritium (T) plasma is compressed to very high density, the particles resulting from nuclear reactions give their energy mostly to D and T ions, by nuclear collisions, rather than to electrons as usual. Fusion can thus proceed as a chain reaction, without the need of thermonuclear temperatures.

What are the natural forces at play during nuclear fusion?

The gravitational forces in the stars compress matter, mostly hydrogen, up to very large densities and temperatures at the star-centers, igniting the fusion reaction. The same gravitational field balances the enormous thermal expansion forces, maintaining the thermonuclear reactions in a star, like the sun, at a controlled and steady rate.

In the laboratory, the gravitational force is replaced by magnetic forces in magnetic confinement systems whereas radiation force compresses the fuel, generating even higher pressures and temperature, and resulting in a fusion reaction in the inertial confinement systems.

What approaches have human attempts to achieve nuclear fusion taken?

Two main approaches, namely magnetic containment and inertial containment, have been attempted to achieve fusion.

In the magnetic confinement scheme, various magnetic ‘cages’ have been used, the most successful being the tokamak configuration. Here, magnetic fields are generated by electric coils. Together with the current due to charged particles in the plasma, they confine the plasma into a particular shape. It is then heated to an extremely high temperature for fusion to occur.

In the inertial confinement scheme, extremely high-power lasers are concentrated on a tiny sphere consisting of the D-T mixture, creating tremendous pressure and compression. This generates even higher pressures and temperatures, creating a conducive environment for a fusion reaction to occur.

To create fusion energy in both the schemes, the reaction must be self-sustaining.

What are the hurdles that must be overcome to operate a working nuclear fusion power plant to generate electricity?

Fusion power is in the form of fast neutrons that are released, of an energy of 14 Mev [although MeV is a unit of energy, it denotes a certain mass of the particle according to the mass-energy equivalence; to compare, a non-excited proton has an energy of 938.2 MeV]. This energy will be converted to thermal energy which then would be converted to electrical energy. Hurdles are in the form of special materials that need to be developed that are capable of withstanding extremely high heat flux in a neutron environment. Reliability of operation of fusion reactors is also a big challenge.

What kind of waste products/emissions would be produced by a fusion power plant?

All the plasma facing components are bombarded by neutrons, which will make the first layers of the metallic confinement radioactive for a short period. The confinement will be made of different materials. Efforts are being made by materials scientists to develop special-grade steel to have weaker effects struck by neutrons. All said, such irradiated components will have to be stored for at least 50 years. The extent of contamination should be reduced with the newer structural materials.

Fusion reactions are intrinsically safe as the reaction terminates itself in the event of the failure of any sub-system.

India is one of the seven countries committed to the ITER program in France. Could you tell us what its status is?

ITER project has gradually moved into construction phase. Therefore, Fusion is no more a dream but a reality. Construction at site is progressing rapidly. Various critical components are being fabricated in the seven parties through their domestic agencies.

The first plasma is expected in the end of 2020 as per the 2010 baseline. Indian industries are also involved in producing various subsystems. R&D and prototyping of many of the high tech components are progressing as per plan. India is committed to deliver its share in time.