Nuclear Fusion Created in Laboratory
Los Angles, California (AP) -- In the latest attempt to create nuclear fusion under laboratory conditions, scientists reported they achieved it in an experiment that uses a strong electric field generated by a small crystal.
While the energy created was too small to harness cheap fusion power, this new way of making nuclear fusion could have potential uses in the oil drilling industry and homeland security, said Seth Putterman, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted the study.
The experiment's results appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
For many years, scientists have sought to produce controllable nuclear fusion, the same power that lights the sun and stars. Fusion power has been touted as the ultimate solution to the world's energy needs and a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels like coal and oil, but even investigating potential ways of generating it requires building enormous reactors that cost millions of dollars.
Physicists met previous claims of tabletop fusion with skepticism and even derision.
In one of the most notable cases, Dr. B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University in England shocked the world in 1989 when they announced that they had achieved so-called cold fusion at room temperature. Their work was discredited after repeated attempts to reproduce it failed.
Fusion experts noted that the UCLA experiment was credible because, unlike the 1989 work, it did not violate basic principles of physics.
"This doesn't have any controversy in it because they're using a tried and true method," said David Ruzic, professor of nuclear and plasma engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's no mystery in terms of the physics."
In fusion, light atoms are joined in a high-temperature process that frees large amounts of energy. Fusion produces virtually no air pollution and does not pose the safety and long-term radioactive waste concerns associated with modern nuclear power plants, where heavy uranium atoms are split to create energy in a process known as nuclear fission.
In the UCLA experiment, scientists placed a tiny crystal that can generate a strong electric field into a vacuum chamber filled with deuterium gas, a form of hydrogen capable of fusion. Then the researchers activated the crystal by heating it.
The resulting reaction gave off an isotope of helium along with subatomic particles known as neutrons, a characteristic of fusion. The experiment did not, however, produce more energy than the amount put in -- an achievement that would be a huge breakthrough.
UCLA's Putterman said future experiments will focus on refining the technique for potential commercial uses, including designing portable neutron generators that could be used for oil well drilling or scanning luggage and cargo at airports.