Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center have now demonstrated a method of inducing nuclear fusion without building a massive stellarator or tokamak. In fact, all they needed was a bit of metal, some hydrogen, and an electron accelerator. IEEE Spectrum reports: The team believes that their method, called lattice confinement fusion, could be a potential new power source for deep space missions. They have published their results in two papers in Physical Review C. "Lattice confinement" refers to the lattice structure formed by the atoms making up a piece of solid metal. The NASA group used samples of erbium and titanium for their experiments. Under high pressure, a sample was "loaded" with deuterium gas, an isotope of hydrogen with one proton and one neutron. The metal confines the deuterium nuclei, called deuterons, until it's time for fusion.
"During the loading process, the metal lattice starts breaking apart in order to hold the deuterium gas," says Theresa Benyo, an analytical physicist and nuclear diagnostics lead on the project. "The result is more like a powder." At that point, the metal is ready for the next step: overcoming the mutual electrostatic repulsion between the positively-charged deuteron nuclei, the so-called Coulomb barrier. To overcome that barrier requires a sequence of particle collisions. First, an electron accelerator speeds up and slams electrons into a nearby target made of tungsten. The collision between beam and target creates high-energy photons, just like in a conventional X-ray machine. The photons are focused and directed into the deuteron-loaded erbium or titanium sample. When a photon hits a deuteron within the metal, it splits it apart into an energetic proton and neutron. Then the neutron collides with another deuteron, accelerating it. At the end of this process of collisions and interactions, you're left with a deuteron that's moving with enough energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier and fuse with another deuteron in the lattice.
Key to this process is an effect called electron screening, or the shielding effect. Even with very energetic deuterons hurtling around, the Coulomb barrier can still be enough to prevent fusion. But the lattice helps again. "The electrons in the metal lattice form a screen around the stationary deuteron," says Benyo. The electrons' negative charge shields the energetic deuteron from the repulsive effects of the target deuteron's positive charge until the nuclei are very close, maximizing the amount of energy that can be used to fuse. Aside from deuteron-deuteron fusion, the NASA group found evidence of what are known as Oppenheimer-Phillips stripping reactions. Sometimes, rather than fusing with another deuteron, the energetic deuteron would collide with one of lattice's metal atoms, either creating an isotope or converting the atom to a new element. The team found that both fusion and stripping reactions produced useable energy.
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