How Nuclear Fusion Reactors Work

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Physics of Nuclear Fusion: Reactions

Current nuclear reactors use nuclear fission to generate power. In nuclear fission, you get energy from splitting one atom into two atoms. In a conventional nuclear reactor, high-energy neutrons split heavy atoms of uranium, yielding large amounts of energy, radiation and radioactive wastes that last for long periods of time (see How Nuclear Power Works).

In nuclear fusion, you get energy when two atoms join together to form one. In a fusion reactor, hydrogen atoms come together to form helium atoms, neutrons and vast amounts of energy. It's the same type of reaction that powers hydrogen bombs and the sun. This would be a cleaner, safer, more efficient and more abundant source of power than nuclear fission.

There are several types of fusion reactions. Most involve the isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium:

  • Proton-proton chain - This sequence is the predominant fusion reaction scheme used by stars such as the sun. Two pairs of protons form to make two deuterium atoms. Each deuterium atom combines with a proton to form a helium-3 atom. Two helium-3 atoms combine to form beryllium-6, which is unstable. Beryllium-6 decays into two helium-4 atoms. These reactions produce high energy particles (protons, electrons, neutrinos, positrons) and radiation (light, gamma rays)
  • Deuterium-deuterium reactions - Two deuterium atoms combine to form a helium-3 atom and a neutron.

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  • Deuterium-tritium reactions - One atom of deuterium and one atom of tritium combine to form a helium-4 atom and a neutron. Most of the energy released is in the form of the high-energy neutron.

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Conceptually, harnessing nuclear fusion in a reactor is a no-brainer. But it has been extremely difficult for scientists to come up with a controllable, non-destructive way of doing it. To understand why, we need to look at the necessary conditions for nuclear fusion.