From the earliest civilization until today, the Sun and the stars have been objects of fascination for mankind. In the first decades of the 20th century, scientific discoveries explained what the sun is made of and how it works. The series of breakthroughs began with the discovery of the atomic nucleus in 1911. Starting in 1920, experiments involving the nuclei of atoms, and the development of quantum theory, led researchers to conclude that the Sun fuses hydrogen into helium, releasing immense amounts of energy. Initially, scientists wondered how positively charged hydrogen protons could fuse into helium when they should be repelling each other. After much work by several physicists, in 1938 a leading nuclear physics expert, Hans Bethe, laid out a theory of nuclear fusion which was able to explain the extraordinary energy release by fusion reactions taking place in the Sun.
We now know that nuclear fusion powers all the stars in the universe. Fusion power is the use of nuclear fusion reactions to provide controlled energy production. Since the 1940’s, the pursuit of fusion power for the benefit of all humankind has been among the most important challenges of scientific research. Today, the promise of fully developing fusion power is enormous. It would yield an essentially infinite energy supply without carbon emissions, without radioactive wastes, and without bio-hazardous threats to the safety of the planet and its inhabitants.
A fusion reaction occurs when two nuclei of atoms collide with such force that they, at least briefly, stick together or fuse. Sometimes they immediately break apart forming other nuclei. But the key point is that these reactions happen between the electrically-charged nuclei that release large amounts of energy.
A key part of the science of fusion is plasma physics. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, in addition to solid, liquid and gas. Plasma is a state of matter which occurs when electrons have been knocked off their atoms, generally due to high temperatures, and are free to move and respond to electromagnetic fields. Well over 99% of the matter in the universe is in the plasma state—stars and the matter between the stars are all plasmas. On earth, we see plasmas in fire and lightning. Plasma technology stretches beyond fusion energy research and is applied industrially in TVs, lighting and manufacturing.
Our approach at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics differs from most fusion power projects in that we are aiming to use aneutronic, or radioactive waste-free, fuels in a device called the dense plasma focus or DPF. Because this device focuses the filaments within the plasma gas inside its vacuum chamber into a tiny fusion producing ball, plasmoid, we refer to this combination of fuel type and device as “Focus Fusion.”
While fusion derives its energy from the nucleus, it is very important to distinguish it from what is commonly referred to as “nuclear power,” which is more accurately described as “fission power.”