In DepthPlasma Physics

Fusion reactor fuels up with bomb ingredient

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Science  11 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6313, pp. 690-691
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6313.690

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The Z Machine, at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, creates an overwhelming magnetic field using banks of electrical capacitors. The field pinches a cylinder the size of a pencil eraser so fast and furiously that hydrogen atoms inside fuse into helium, releasing energy. But until now, the fuel inside the tiny tube has been limited to deuterium, a hydrogen with one neutron. In a fusion shot in August, Sandia scientists for the first time added a dash of tritium, hydrogen with two neutrons. Over the next 5 years, the tests will gradually ramp up to a 50-50 blend of deuterium and tritium (DT). DT carries both risks and rewards. Tritium should dramatically boost the energy released in the fusion reactions—allowing Sandia to show that their reactor could provide a viable approach to fusion energy. But tritium is both expensive and mildly radioactive, so its use comes with a variety of safety issues.

  • * W. Wayt Gibbs is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington, and editorial director at Intellectual Ventures.