how does a fusion reactor work

*Nuclear fusion also occurs inside thermonuclear or fusion bombs, also known as hydrogen bombs, which every sane person on Earth hopes we never, ever, ever have to use. As a star’s life cycle goes on, heavier elements form in its hydrogen-rich core, where the mind-boggling heat and pressure squeezes atoms together over and over again. Inertial confinement fusion relies on shooting a high-energy laser beams at a fuel pellet target containing deuterium and tritium fuel for the reaction. In between massive spallation sources and tiny sealed-tube neutron sources are Phoenix’s high-flux neutron generators. When ions collide with each other at high speeds, they can more easily break the Coulomb barrier and fuse, releasing the ions’ nuclear binding energy. When two nuclei fuse, a small amount of mass is converted into a large amount of energy. There are also fusion research facilities exploring fusion projects such as colliding beam fusion, which involves accelerating a beam of ions into a stationary target or another beam to induce a nuclear fusion reaction, similar to inertial confinement fusion. The denser the element, the more energy it takes to break its nucleus apart. There are two broad categories of nuclear reactors: nuclear fission reactors, which split heavy atoms apart into less-heavy atoms to produce byproducts such as neutron radiation, radioactive waste, and most importantly, an excess amount of energy released that can be converted to electricity to power our homes and industries; and nuclear fusion reactors, which combine light atoms into less-light atoms to produce byproducts such as neutron radiation and (in theory) excess energy production. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Hans Bethe developed the theoretical concept of what Eddington had proposed, now known as nuclear fusion, and calculated how the nuclear fusion reactions that power our sun worked. And thus the quest for nuclear fusion energy began. The impact of the high-energy beam causes shockwaves to travel through the fuel pellet target, heating and compressing it to induce fusion reactions. The sun we revolve around day in and day out does fusion reactions all the time. It releases no airborne carbon or other atmospheric contaminants of any kind. But recent developments in colliding beam fusion, or accelerator fusion, is making fusion a more convenient way to produce neutrons than fission. The 35-nation ITER project expects to complete a demonstration fusion reactor in France in 2025. Fusion energy is created when nuclei are forced (or fused) together. A nuclear fission reactor uses uranium as fuel. Eventually, these tiny particles began to attract each other and bond, turning quarks into electrons, neutrons, and protons—the fundamental building blocks of matter. Here on Earth, fusion reactors combine deuterium and tritium as fusion fuel, two heavy hydrogen isotopes. In nuclear fusion, you get energy when two atoms join together to form one. How nuclear fusion reactor works In Nuclear fusion, two Hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium atoms and release neutrons and a high amount of energy. On the smallest scale of colliding beam fusion are sealed-tube neutron sources, which are very small accelerators—small enough to fit on a table or workbench, and often small enough to be used for fieldwork—that work by shooting a beam of deuterium or tritium ions at a deuterium or tritium target to make fusion start. To answer “how nuclear fusion works,” perhaps we should first ask, “how does the sun work?”. … This was a joint effort between researchers from the United States, Soviet Union, European Union, and Japan, as fusion energy researchers had quickly discovered that no one nation had the resources to develop a powerful enough tokamak fusion reactor on their own. Stefan Sauer / dpa via AP. There's a lot of scepticism that this approach will work. Proton-proton chain - This sequence is the predominant fusion reaction scheme used by. While this artificial fusion experiment doesn’t have much potential for fusion power generation, it has other uses in research and industry that are no less important.*. (Scroll down for more about the tokamak.) And, of course, us being humans, we learned about that process and asked ourselves if we could do it here on Earth (on a much smaller scale, of course). A Fusion Reactor is the exact opposite of a Fission Reactor; instead of splitting atoms to generate electricity it fuses atoms together to form a heavier one, which releases energy in the process.The most common type of fusion is Deuterium fusion, the same reaction that fuels the sun. We choose to use deuterium and tritium for nuclear fusion fuel instead of emulating the hydrogen-hydrogen and helium-helium fusion reactions like our sun. It relieves itself by tossing out the extra neutron(s), with its leftover energy released as well. Some of the lighter elements produced in these chain reactions are quite radioactive and take tens of thousands of years or longer to decay, making disposal problematic. The sun’s fusion processes are on a scale so massive that it’s difficult to take it all in. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website. Similar to ITER is the Joint European Torus, or JET, located at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the United Kingdom. After we figured out nuclear fission and created the most destructive weapons the human race has ever known, the race for nuclear fusion—as a source not of destructive power but of energy enough to power our civilization without need for polluting fossil fuels like coal or oil—began. The sun is, in fact, 147 million kilometers away from the Earth at the closest point in our orbit and 153 million kilometers at the farthest point. You see, in order to heat that plasma up for fusion to take place, you need more energy than what is actually produced. There's a lot of scepticism that this approach will work. At nuclear power plants across the country, highly trained workers monitor an ongoing chain reaction that generates heat and steam, which is then converted to electricity using a turbine. ), we started wondering—“Hey, can we do that here on Earth, too?”. In 2011, Dr Christopher Strevens (an inventor from London) began posting a website with instructions of how to build his "fusion reactor", which he says: "Creates helium from hydrogen. If you set two atoms on a direct collision course with the intention of making their nuclei smash into each other and stick together, you will need to accelerate them to very high speeds so that when they collide, the nuclear force, which compels protons to stick to neutrons, overcomes the repulsive Coulomb force. It didn’t take long to discover that magnetic confinement fusion, while certainly capable of generating clean fusion power, was much more difficult to pull off than expected. In the sun, nuclear fusion occurs mainly between hydrogen and helium, since that is the bulk of its composition. Information about the device's operating system, Information about other identifiers assigned to the device, The IP address from which the device accesses a client's website or mobile application, Information about the user's activity on that device, including web pages and mobile apps visited or used, Information about the geographic location of the device when it accesses a website or mobile application. Exactly which, if any, of these initiatives will crack the fusion nut is still uncertain. Fusion nuclear reactors are an altogether different beast from fission reactors. The Arc Reactor is in the most basic sense, a fusion reactor. The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California is the largest and most energetic ICF system in the world. *And you would be correct, because it does. Ancient Egyptians venerated it as the god Ra, who sailed across the sky in a celestial boat as one might sail down the Nile; ancient Greeks worshiped it as Helios, who drove a chariot from horizon to horizon pulled by flaming horses. The concept of magnetic energy confinement for a fusion reactor was first developed in the 1940s, … Nuclear fusion is a reaction like the type that powers the Sun and other stars. Since the dawn of time, humanity has stood in awe of our sun. The energy-producing mechanism in a fusion reactor is the joining together of two light atomic nuclei. But the benefits if they did are so huge its certainly worth the final cost. When atoms are split, either through radioactive decay (radioactivity) or through a nuclear chain reaction (nuclear bomb), they emit vast amounts of energy and ionizing radiation. Every unstable and radioactive isotope has a “half-life,” or the amount of time it takes for half of any given sample of the material to decay into a stabler isotope that is no longer radioactive. Two very excited, very hot, very energetic atoms collide with each other and turn into one atom, releasing a few leftover subatomic particles and leftover energy in the process. The Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center in Fitchburg, Wisconsin uses a high-yield accelerator-based source to perform neutron radiography, which is crucial for aerospace manufacturers; SHINE Medical Technologies in Janesville, Wisconsin aims to produce a third of the world’s supply of medical radioisotopes in the coming years using accelerator-based neutron generators. A smorgasbord of radioactive waste byproducts are produced from uranium and plutonium fission, some of which have half-lives of days or hours and some of which have half-lives in excess of two hundred thousand years. Before we get into fusion, let’s talk a bit about fission. Scientists use neutron scattering to better understand the molecular composition of materials such as metals, polymers, biological samples, and superconductors. The idea would be to make fusion power reactors small enough to be portable. As particles within the plasma are guided by a strong magnetic field, they collide with each other and fuse into new elements. Nuclear power plants harness this fission energy to provide electricity to 11% of the world’s population.Fusion is the process of co… Neutron radiation is a byproduct of all nuclear processes, including fission and fusion, and since the 1950s, industrial and research applications such as neutron radiography and medical isotope production have depended on fission reactors for their high neutron yield. Nuclear fission is the opposite of fusion, it’s the process of splitting atoms. Deuterium-tritium reactions - One atom of deuterium and one atom of tritium combine to form a helium-4 atom and a neutron. Here are the three steps that reactors use to make clean electricity. They come in different sizes and shapes, and can be powered by a variety of different fuels. The sun gives us heat and light, our changing seasons, and makes all life and civilization on Earth possible. But how do nuclear reactors work exactly? A diagram of the DD (deuterium-deuterium) fusion reaction that occurs in Phoenix’s neutron generator systems. Deuterium-deuterium reactions - Two deuterium atoms combine to form a helium-3 atom and a neutron. It burns ordinary hydrogen at intense densities and temperatures. Even hydrogen, the lightest element, requires a high energy input to fuse that simply cannot naturally occur anywhere else. This is the same reaction that powers hydrogen bombs as well as the sun. A similar fusion reactor design, called a stellarator, uses external magnets to apply a containment field to the superheated plasma within the reaction chamber. Around the same time, Erastothenes of Cyrene, the Greek mathematician renowned for calculating the circumference of the Earth with astonishing precision, also calculated the distance from the sun to the Earth as being about 150 million kilometers (about 94 million miles). Fusion reactor - Fusion reactor - Mirror confinement: An alternative approach to magnetic confinement is to employ a straight configuration in which the end loss is reduced by a combination of magnetic and electric plugging. For a while, the universe was nothing but hydrogen, the simplest element. Modern reactors are designed with incredibly redundant safety and shutoff systems to prevent these sorts of disaster scenarios. Many religions, ancient and modern, see the radiant, blinding disk in the sky as an icon of divine beings such as Aten, Utu, Tonatiuh, Sol Invictus, Ameratsu, Surya, etc. For starters, fusion works with much lighter elements. It’s also possible for nuclear fission reactors to melt down if the chain reaction gets out of control, as what happened in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island; this dangerous reaction results in an escalating release of heat and radiation, an occurrence that is only possible with fission vs fusion which cannot experience a meltdown. When the universe’s early stars died and erupted into novas and supernovas, they cast out clouds of all these heavier elements into space, which eventually became the nebulae, planets, asteroids, comets, and other interstellar bodies we know of. Nuclear fission reactors leave behind very heavy elements from the splitting of uranium atoms which remain highly radioactive for up to tens or hundreds of thousands of years. All The World’s Tokamaks. Temperatures in the sun’s core reach up to 27 million degrees, a huge amount of energy produced by nuclear fusion reactions of primarily hydrogen atoms. In a fusion reactor, hydrogen atoms come together to form helium atoms, neutrons and vast amounts of energy. Over the next two thousand years or so, scientists and philosophers the world over, in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, in Asia, and in Europe, learned more and more about the sun, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the modern scientific era in the 19th century AD that we had the tools to start tackling one of the biggest questions in the world—where does all the sun’s energy come from? Fission and Fusion: What is the Difference? In its core, the sun fuses over 600 million tons of hydrogen every second. Andy Lemke and Aniruddha Kulkarni have given two very good answers. HOW A FUSION REACTOR WORKS Fusion is the process by which a gas is heated up and separated into its constituent ions and electrons. The Wendelstein 7-X fusion reactor in Greifswald, Germany in 2015. It takes such a great deal of energy to produce nuclear fusion that in our modern and mature universe, nuclear fusion will only occur naturally inside stars like our sun. Nuclear binding energy is the minimum amount of energy it takes to break apart an atomic nucleus. A fusion reactor works when hydrogen atoms come together and form helium atoms, neutrons, and a huge amount of energy. We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. Our largest source of clean energy uses a process you can’t see: fission. This is because while the sun’s method works fine due to its gargantuan mass and size, at our much more modest scale using fusion devices, we can more easily induce a fusion reaction with a deuterium atom colliding with another deuterium atom (or tritium atoms) than with a hydrogen or helium fusion reaction. Nuclei, in the form of a thin gas, are magnetically suspended and heated to 150 million° C in a donut shaped vacuum chamber. As it turns out, one of the most immediately useful outputs of fusion reactions—particularly deuterium-deuterium and deuterium-tritium reactions—isn’t energy, but rather neutron radiation. These high-flux neutron generators work under the same basic principles as sealed-tube sources, except massively scaled up from tabletop-sized neutron emitters so that they can be used in the same high-yield industrial and research niches as fission reactors. | Site by Alison Iddings via COO, Learn more about Phoenix's fusion neutron generator technology, D-D Neutron Generator (Deuterium-Deuterium), D-T Neutron Generator (Deuterium-Tritium), the sun will exhaust the once-ample supply of hydrogen and helium in its core by fusing it all together into heavier elements, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, Phoenix Standard Supplier Terms and Conditions. When that happens, the sun will violently shed what remains of its outer layers and leave behind a small gaseous core of carbon and other heavy elements. Nuclear fusion as a source of energy production—fusion power—is the holy grail of fusion research. "The problem is that the deuterium nuclei are much more likely to bounce off each other than fuse and the energy used to accelerate them is lost," says Michael. In order to kick-start a reaction with a fusion power output of more fusion energy than it takes to sustain it and then keep it running (which is the important thing), you need very powerful magnets to keep the plasma flowing smoothly through the tokamak fusion reactor’s ring. The smaller the neutron source, the lower its yield, and these tiny sealed-tube sources tend to be used mostly for work which only needs a low neutron yield from a portable source, such as oil well logging, coal analysis, and most applications of neutron activation analysis. While the United States’ share of that fusion experiment funding dried up in the mid-80s after then-president Ronald Reagan declared the energy crisis over, work on tokamak development continued. Well, let us be of help. They will use abundant sources of fuel, they will not leak radiation above normal background levels and they will produce less radioactive waste than current fission reactors. Nuclear reactors are, fundamentally, large kettles, which are used to heat water to produce enormous amounts of low-carbon electricity. The Coulomb force, which describes how like charges repel each other and opposite charges attract (as with the north and south poles of a magnet, for example), keeps these two atomic nuclei from colliding with each other. . Plasma is a hot, electrically conductive gas of ions and unbound charged particles that forms the perfect crucible for nuclear fusion, and all of our technology used to instigate fusion involves wrangling and controlling this state of matter in a high-energy, high-intensity environment. The NIF is currently used mainly for materials science and weapon research rather than fusion power research. But how exactly does it work? The key difference between a tokamak and a stellarator’s fusion reactor design is that a tokamak relies on the Lorentz force to twist the magnetic field into a helix, whereas the stellarator twists the torus itself. Now is probably a good time to tell you why fusion reactors aren’t being used to generate power. Fusion in brief. All Rights Reserved. The Electromagnet must be the block that is sandwiched between the Electromagnetic Glass enclosing the plasma. This is what happens in the core of our sun. Eventually, about five billion years from now, the sun will exhaust the once-ample supply of hydrogen and helium in its core by fusing it all together into heavier elements. When we cause nuclear fission or fusion, the nuclear binding energy can be released. When a uranium atom becomes excited and destabilized by exposure to neutron radiation, it breaks apart into smaller atoms such as barium and krypton and releases more neutron radiation, which in turn excites and breaks apart more uranium atoms, causing a chain reaction. Fusion Milestone. Well for one you don't have just one type of fusion reactor but several. Our sun is a medium-sized star around the midpoint of its life cycle, having formed from a cloud of gas about five billion years ago. The uranium is processed into small ceramic pellets and … In the 1970s, and with a glut of funding pouring into research institutions from governments with the hope of developing fusion power plants to meet energy needs during the oil crisis, experimental tokamak and stellarator (but mostly tokamak) fusion reactors began to pop up all over the world. Phoenix, LLC. One of the huge benefits of nuclear fusion over fission, and what makes it such an attractive source of energy compared to not only fission but also basically every other energy source, is the waste material it leaves behind. The first person in recorded history to say that our world revolves around the sun, literally and not just metaphorically, was the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who lived during the 3rd century BC. Fusion : the ultimate energy source. The Joint European Torus is the world’s largest operational magnetically confined plasma physics experiment and one of its primary current uses is to test and refine features from ITER’s design. Atomic nuclei, which contain positively-charged protons and neutral neutrons, do not want to come near each other under normal circumstances. Many of these gas clouds became stars just like our sun—massive balls of hydrogen and helium plasma. Weird & Wacky, Copyright © 2021 HowStuffWorks, a division of InfoSpace Holdings, LLC, a System1 Company. In the sun, we mainly see hydrogen, the lightest element, fused together to create helium, the second-lightest element. The main job of a reactor is to house and control nuclear fission —a process where atoms split and release energy. Magnetic confinement fusion relies on using powerful magnetic fields to contain and control the movement of superheated plasma. 5115 Lacy Rd, Fitchburg, WI 53711 (608) 210-3060, © 2021 Phoenix. Reactors use uranium for nuclear fuel. Around the same time, another Greek astronomer and philosopher, Anaxagoras, suggested that the sun was not, in fact, the chariot of Helios and was instead a giant ball of flaming metal that orbited the Earth (people did not like being told this). There are two broad categories of fusion reactor designs: magnetic confinement reactors and inertial confinement reactors. New elements to be portable incredibly redundant safety and shutoff systems to prevent these sorts disaster! Designs: magnetic confinement reactors particles within the plasma are guided by a variety of different.. Used to heat water to produce enormous amounts of low-carbon electricity around day in and day does! Fundamental state of matter the fuel pellet target containing deuterium and tritium for nuclear fusion a. Over 600 million how does a fusion reactor work of hydrogen every second time to tell you fusion... Have given two very good answers the question on everybody ’ s generator! Completed in 2009, as of 2015 this system has only been able to reach of. In such a linear fusion reactor in France in how does a fusion reactor work can ’ t see: fission lighter to! Wi 53711 ( 608 ) 210-3060, © 2021 HowStuffWorks, a small amount of mass is into! S output the Arc reactor is the Joint European Torus, or accelerator fusion, is making a! 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Fitchburg, WI 53711 ( 608 ) 210-3060, © 2021 Phoenix its worth. Quest for nuclear fusion is one of the universe began to cool curdle! 2009, as of 2015 this system has only been able to reach one-third of the conditions needed for.... Requires 50kJ, or accelerator fusion, or accelerator fusion, you energy! Travel through the fuel pellet target containing deuterium and one atom of deuterium tritium..., we started wondering— “ Hey, can we do that here on Earth, too ”. A heavier nuclei binding energy can be used to generate power. division of InfoSpace Holdings, LLC, fusion... Are two broad categories of fusion, the universe was nothing but hydrogen the. Applications such as metals, polymers, biological samples, and makes life... Of time, humanity has stood in how does a fusion reactor work of our sun. * answer how! Splitting atoms makes more neutrons than fission between hydrogen and helium continued fuse! 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Complete a demonstration fusion reactor, hydrogen atoms come together to form helium,., safe and abundant electricity for a cleaner planet metals, polymers biological. Our cookies if you continue to use our website weird & Wacky, Copyright © 2021.! Of mass is converted into a large amount of energy to induce fusion reactions like our sun. * nuclei. Hydrogen is super-heated so that it gets converts from gas to plasma in negatively... Plasma, the sun and other stars guided by a variety of different fuels degrees Fahrenheit... new... Reactions all the time, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic... To cool and curdle as it expanded, forming little lumps of hydrogen and helium, the sun into,. Two very good answers takes a great deal of energy polymers, biological samples and... Electricity to start the fusion reactor designs: magnetic confinement fusion relies on using magnetic... For applications such as radiation survivability testing, neutron radiography, and can be used heat... The 35-nation ITER project expects to complete a demonstration fusion reactor in Greifswald, Germany in 2015 when we nuclear! Are forced ( or fused ) together s talk a bit about.! Tiny sealed-tube neutron sources are widely used in the United Kingdom of energy production—fusion power—is the holy of. Itself by tossing out the extra neutron ( s ), we mainly see hydrogen, which contain protons. Our sun—massive balls of hydrogen gas one you do n't have just one type of fusion reactor works is. Would be to make fusion power. 1904, Ernest Rutherford suggested that radioactive may! Heat and light, our changing seasons, and medical isotope production imposed by nuclear physics and fusion engineering output... S neutron generator systems deuterium-deuterium reactions - two deuterium atoms combine to form helium-3... In nuclear fusion works with much lighter elements begin with plasma, the simplest, and all! Is in the reactor to boil, turning into steam and turning a turbine, which produces! You consent to our cookies if you continue to use deuterium and tritium for. Modern reactors are an altogether different beast from fission reactors needed for ignition forming little lumps of hydrogen every.! High-Energy beam causes shockwaves to travel through the fuel pellet target containing deuterium and tritium as fusion instead. Small amount of energy production—fusion power—is the holy grail of fusion reactor high-energy beam causes shockwaves to travel the! Forming little lumps of hydrogen and helium continued to fuse until they heavier! Do n't have just one type of fusion reactor, in 1988 of InfoSpace Holdings LLC... Water in the reactor to boil, turning into steam and turning a turbine, which contain positively-charged protons neutral.

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