Research getting closer to making nuclear fusion power a reality

Fusion is the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun. (Reference image by Jerry Meaden, Flickr).

A new study published in the Atomic Data and Nuclear Data Tables journal claims to have taken a major step towards making nuclear fusion power a reality. 

In this study, lead researcher and PhD candidate at Australia’s Curtin University, Liam Scarlett, presents a database of electron-molecule reactions that will allow other scientists to accurately model plasmas containing molecular hydrogen. 

“Our electron-molecule collision modelling is an exciting step in the global push to develop fusion power – a new, clean electricity source,” Scarlett said in a media statement. “Fusion is the nuclear reaction which occurs when atoms collide and fuse together, releasing huge amounts of energy. This process is what powers the Sun, and recreating it on Earth requires detailed knowledge of the different types of collisions which take place in the fusion plasma – that’s where my research comes in.”

 Fusion power is attractive due to its virtually unlimited fuel supply (hydrogen) and the lack of long-lived radioactive waste or carbon emissions

The researcher and his co-authors developed mathematical models and computer codes and utilized the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth to calculate the probabilities of different reactions taking place during collisions with molecules. 

The molecules they looked at are those which are formed from atoms of hydrogen and its isotopes, as they play an important role in fusion reactors. 

“Until now, the available data was incomplete, however, our molecular collision modelling has produced an accurate and comprehensive database of more than 60,000 electron-molecule reaction probabilities which, for the first time, has allowed a team in Germany to create an accurate model for molecular hydrogen in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor plasma,” Scarlett said. 

In the scientist’s view, this development is significant because the German model will be used to predict how the plasma will radiate, leading to a better understanding of plasma physics, and the development of diagnostic tools that are vital for controlling the fusion reaction. 

The study was funded by the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research, an institution that has expressed interest in harnessing fusion power as a future energy source given its virtually unlimited fuel supply (hydrogen) and the lack of long-lived radioactive waste or carbon emissions. 

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