Nuclear Fusion

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is hydrogen that is responsible for the tremendous quantities of energy produced by the sun and other stars. However, the sun and stars get their energy through the process of nuclear fusion: the fusing or combining of two hydrogen atoms to form a helium atom. This fusing process creates huge amounts of heat-on the order of 2 million degrees Celsius-and there are no waste products left over. However, there are some problems. How do you contain such fantastic heat? What vessel or tools can handle it? And also, in order to duplicate the sun's fusing process on earth, you would need a great amount of energy to start with. So far, the only device that scientists have developed from their knowledge of atomic fusion is the hydrogen bomb.

Because it uses fusion rather than fission, the hydrogen bomb is a lot more powerful than the old-fashioned atomic bomb (in fact, the atomic bomb acts as the initiator or detonator).

Controlled fusion could practically end our energy worries. One gram of hydrogen upon fusing would release the energy equivalent of about twenty tons of coal. The reactions involved are:

2/1H + 3/1H 4/2He + 1/0n + energy

6/3Li + 1/0n 4/2He + 3/1He

The first reaction involves the fusing of deuterium and tritium (two isotopes of hydrogen) to produce inert helium gas, a neutron and lots of energy (in the form of heat). The second reaction uses the neutrons produced in the first reaction to react with lithium to produce helium and more tritium. The tritium can then be used to react with more deuterium to continue the fusion process.

The advantage of fusion over other forms of energy production are:

1. The principle fuel, deuterium, is readily obtained from the electrolysis of water. Fractional electrolysis is used to separate the deuterium from the other isotopes of hydrogen. Even though only one hydrogen atom in 5000 is a deuterium atom, the supply of deuterium appears practically inexhaustible.

2. There are no radioactive waste products with fusion and there are no air pollutants. In fact, the only type of pollution that we have to worry about with fusion is thermal pollution.

Copyright 1997 James R. Fromm (