Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories’ Z machine have produced a significant output of fusion neutrons, using a method fully functioning for only little more than a year. The experimental work is described in a paper to be published in the Sept. 24 Physical Review Letters online. A theoretical PRL paper to be published on the same date helps explain why the experimental method worked. The combined work demonstrates the viability of the novel approach.
“We are committed to shaking this [fusion] tree until either we get some good apples or a branch falls down and hits us on the head,” said Sandia senior manager Dan Sinars. He expects the project, dubbed MagLIF for magnetized liner inertial fusion, will be “a key piece of Sandia’s submission for a July 2015 National Nuclear Security Administration review of the national Inertial Confinement Fusion Program.”
Inertial confinement fusion creates nanosecond bursts of neutrons, ideal for creating data to plug into supercomputer codes that test the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The method could be useful as an energy source down the road if the individual fusion pulses can be sequenced like an automobile’s cylinders firing. MagLIF uses a laser to preheat hydrogen fuel, a large magnetic field to squeeze the fuel and a separate magnetic field to keep charged atomic particles from leaving the scene.
It only took the two magnetic fields and the laser, focused on a small amount of fusible material called deuterium (hydrogen with a neutron added to its nucleus), to produce a trillion fusion neutrons (neutrons created by the fusing of atomic nuclei). Had tritium (which carries two neutrons) been included in the fuel, scientific rule-of-thumb says that 100 times more fusion neutrons would have been released. (That is, the actual release of 10 to the 12th neutrons would be upgraded, by the more reactive nature of the fuel, to 10 to the 14th neutrons.) Still, even with this larger output, to achieve break-even fusion—as much power out of the fuel as placed into it—100 times more neutrons (10 to the 16th) would have to be produced. More here Sandia magnetized fusion technique produces significant results.