“Its only a question of money and time, like most things.” – Lawrence Forsley, physicist at the University of Texas and CTO of Global Energy Corp, on lattice confinement fusion scaling, 2020.
In nuclear fission (a process without a natural correlate), the nucleus of an atom is split into smaller nuclei, releasing large amounts of energy (uranium and plutonium are commonly used for this purpose). In nuclear fusion (which occurs in stars), two nuclei merge to form a heavier nucleus, generating more energy than fission without long-lasting, comparatively harmful byproducts. As fusion generates several times more energy and is less dangerous than fission, it has been the subject of continuous experimentation.
The two primary methods for achieving fusion have been magnetic confinement (tokamaks, pinches, mag-mirrors and stellarators) and inertial confinement (LLNL Nova Laser, Shiva Laser and nuclear weapons). Unlike contemporary G-IV nuclear reactors (VHTRs, GFRs, SFRs, MSRs and SCWRs), fusion reactors have yet to be made commercially viable due to the sheer size (and thus space) required, the costs and complexity of construction, maintenance, and insufficiency in density and containment time (duration of heat leakage); problems which have rendered inertial/magnetic fusion techniques impractical (thus far).
A third fusion method, “lattice confinement,” uses particle charging and electron screening (the “confinement”) within a metal substrate (the “lattice”) to create a fusion reaction.
Lattice confinement was pioneered by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons (though they did not use the term) during their tumultuous 1989 “cold fusion” experiments at NAWCWD, wherein they used a cathode composed of a special type of Palladium (Pd) to absorb the hydrogen isotope Deuterium (D) from heavy water (D2O). Despite promising claims of nuclear reaction, Fleischman and Pons’ work was ill-recieved (MIT derided the nascent technology by holding a mock wake) and consequently sidelined.
Recently, researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center of Cleveland, Ohio, in pursuit of energy sources for deep space missions, experimented with this third process by utilizing Deuterium in Erbium (Er) and Titanium (Ti) structures maintained at ambient temperature, wherein kinetic energies were raised to plasma-comparable levels. Fusion was produced by condensing D atoms to 1 billion times tokamak density (1023 ions/cm3) in the metal substrate and using a neutron source (2.9 MeV gama exposure causing photodisassociation of D, which splinters d-protons and d-neutrons) to heat the fuel, prompting *d-d (energetic-static) and Oppenheimer-Phillips reactions, producing a neutron and helium-3 or a proton and tritium (which may also react, producing more energy).
The researcher’s paper “Nuclear fusion reactions in deuterated metals” expounds upon the process, while their second paper “Novel nuclear reactions observed in bremsstrahlung-irradiated deuterated metals” details their results. Unfortunately, the aforementioned studies were (and likely will continue to be) widely reported, by numerous pop-sci outlets, as “novel,” which is misleading, as it presents lattice confinement fusion, in totality, as a method newly developed by the Center, rather than the results of the Center’s research, when lattice confinement fusion has been studied for many years prior (see: A.V. Subashiev, et al. 2017. Strong screening by lattice confinement and resultant fusion reaction rates in fcc metals; A.V. Subashiev, et al. 2017. Nuclear fusion by lattice confinement).
Though the lattice confinement technique is not yet ready for practical applications, it has tremendous potential, both terrestrially and, due to the safety and compactness of the procedure, extraterrestrially. For one example of the processes prospective utility, lattice confinement can generate Technetium-99m (Tc99m), the most widely used medical radioisotope (as a tracer).
In the wake of the studies, NASA project investigator, Bruce Steinetz remarked, “The current findings open a new path for initiating fusion reactions for further study within the scientific community. However, the reaction rates need to be increased substantially to achieve appreciable power levels, which may be possible utilizing various reaction multiplication methods under consideration.”
- A.V. Subashiev, et al. 2017. Nuclear fusion by lattice confinement. Journal of the Physical Society of Japan, 86(7), 074201.
- A.V. Subashiev, et al. 2017. Strong screening by lattice confinement and resultant fusion reaction rates in fcc metals. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, 407, 67–72.
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- Vladimir Pines, et al. (2020). Novel nuclear reactions observed in bremsstrahlung-irradiated deuterated metals. Physical Review C, 101(4).