[I love seeing how the White man's science keeps moving forward at a steady pace. We are going to leave others behind. If only we realised the power of the minds of our people. Jan]
NASA has made tiny, but promising steps toward lattice confinement nuclear fusion.
Magnetic fusion requires massive heat and is still not sustainable for energy use.
Deuterium is crammed into all the empty spaces in an existing metal structure.
NASA has unlocked nuclear fusion on a tiny scale, with a phenomenon called lattice confinement fusion that takes place in the narrow channels between atoms. In the reaction, the common nuclear fuel deuterium gets trapped in the “empty” atomic space in a solid metal. What results is a Goldilocks effect that’s neither supercooled nor superheated, but where atoms reach fusion-level energy.
You like nuclear. So do we. Let’s nerd out over it together.
“Lattice confinement” may sound complex, but it’s just a mechanism—by comparison, tokamaks like ITER and stellarators use “magnetic confinement.” These are the ways scientists plan to condense and then corral the fantastical amount of energy from the fusion reaction.
In a traditional magnetic fusion reaction, extraordinary heat is used to combat atoms’ natural reaction forces and keep them confined in a plasma together. And in another method called “inertial confinement,” NASA explains, “fuel is compressed to extremely high levels but for only a short, nano-second period of time, when fusion can occur.”
By contrast, the lattice is neither cold nor hot:
“In the new method, conditions sufficient for fusion are created in the confines of the metal lattice that is held at ambient temperature. While the metal lattice, loaded with deuterium fuel, may initially appear to be at room temperature, the new method creates an energetic environment inside the lattice where individual atoms achieve equivalent fusion-level kinetic energies.”
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The fuel is also far more dense, because that’s how the reaction is triggered. “A metal such as erbium is “‘deuterated’ or loaded with deuterium atoms, ‘deuterons,’ packing the fuel a billion times denser than in magnetic confinement (tokamak) fusion reactors. In the new method, a neutron source ‘heats’ or accelerates deuterons sufficiently such that when colliding with a neighboring deuteron it causes D-D fusion reactions.”
With atoms packed so densely within the atomic lattice of another element, the required energy to induce fusion goes way, way down. It’s aided by the lattice itself, which works to filter which particles get through and pushes the right kinds even closer together. But there’s a huge gulf between individual atoms at energy rates resembling fusion versus a real, commercial-scale application of nuclear fusion.
But, NASA says, this is an important first step and one that offers an alternative to the spectacular scale of major tokamak and stellarator projects around the world. Even the smallest magnetic confinement fusion reactors require sun-hot fusion temperatures that have continued to create logistical problems. There will always be use cases where that isn’t feasible to install or maintain, even after scientists finally make it work on a practical scale.
Scientists are doing cutting-edge work on all these kinds of reactors, but a way that didn’t require heating to and maintaining millions of degrees could be a lot simpler. At the very least, it could be suited to applications where a magnetic fusion reactor isn’t feasible. Before then, scientists will need to find a way to increase the rate of atomic reactions manyfold, and they say they have several ideas for how to try to do that.