Physicists took the first step towards the development of a thermonuclear space engine

Researchers have demonstrated a technology to achieve nuclear fusion without the use of a massive reactor, which may serve as the basis for the development of a compact thermonuclear engine in the future..

Nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperature, density, and pressure to force the nuclei of atoms to overcome their natural tendency to repel one another. On Earth, this is achieved using special equipment: a stellarator or a tokamak..

However, scientists from NASA recently announced the development of a new method of creating thermonuclear fusion, which requires only a little metal with hydrogen and an electron accelerator. For the experiments, the team used lumps of erbium and titanium, which are under high pressure «loaded» gaseous deuterium (hydrogen isotope). During this process, their metal lattice began to collapse in order to retain deuterium, which made the structure of titanium and erbium look like a powder..

At this point, the scientists used an electron accelerator, firing charged particles at a tungsten target, generating X-rays. These high-energy photons were focused on a deuterium-filled metal sample. When radiation hits isotopes inside the sample, it splits them into protons and neutrons, which scatter, collide with other deuterium atoms..

Physicists took the first step towards the development of a thermonuclear space engine

Physicists took the first step towards the development of a fusion space engine

The cascade effect as a result of many such collisions and interactions leads to the formation of a deuteron, which moves with high energy, sufficient to overcome the Coulomb barrier and the fusion of two atoms in the crystal lattice of the metal, the electrons of which screen the energetic particle of the isotope, protecting it from the repulsive effect of the target. Even if a deuteron collides with a metal atom, this reaction also produces useful energy..

Although scientists still have a lot of research to do, they say this discovery paved the way for the creation of a compact thermonuclear engine for spacecraft..

text: Ilya Bauer, photo: NASA

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