CHEMISTRY THE CENTRAL SCIENCE

21 NUCLEAR CHEMISTRY

21.8 NUCLEAR POWER: FUSION

Energy is produced when light nuclei fuse into heavier ones. Reactions of this type are responsible for the energy produced by the Sun. Spectroscopic studies indicate that the mass composition of the Sun is 73% H, 26% He, and only 1% all other elements. The following reactions are among the numerous fusion processes believed to occur in the Sun:

Fusion is appealing as an energy source because of the availability of light isotopes on Earth and because fusion products are generally not radioactive. Despite this fact, fusion is not presently used to generate energy. The problem is that, in order for two nuclei to fuse, high temperatures and pressures are needed to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between them. Fusion reactions are therefore also known as thermonuclear reactions. The lowest temperature required for any fusion is about 40,000,000 K, the temperature needed to fuse deuterium and tritium:

Such high temperatures have been achieved by using an atomic bomb to initiate fusion. This is the operating principle behind a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb. This approach is obviously unacceptable, however, for a power generation plant.*

Numerous problems must be overcome before fusion becomes a practical energy source. In addition to the high temperatures necessary to initiate the reaction, there is the problem of confining the reaction. No known structural material is able to withstand the enormous temperatures necessary for fusion. Research has centered on the use of an apparatus called a tokamak, which uses strong magnetic fields to contain and to heat the reaction. Temperatures of over 100,000,000 K have been achieved in a tokamak. Unfortunately, scientists have not yet been able to generate more power than is consumed over a sustained period of time.