Historic breakthrough in nuclear research


Trying to achieve a nuclear fusion reaction, if reduced to its simplest principle, is like trying to light a star in a matchbox. Indeed, the process takes place in a hollow cartridge of only a few centimeters containing two isotopes hydrogen: deuterium and tritium.

“The objective is to compress a small ball containing the two isotopes […]. To make them merge, it is necessary to bring together very extreme conditions, equal to or greater than those found at the center of the Sun,” explains Mr. di Nicola. “For this, it is necessary to generate a pressure of 400 gigabars and a temperature of 150 million degrees. »

To achieve these more than extreme conditions, two processes are currently being studied throughout the world. In France, in the ITER international research center, these are magnets that are used to achieve the conditions necessary to achieve fusion. On the other side of the ocean, the LLNL uses amplified lasers of the TIN system.

“While the Sun uses gravitational forces to achieve these conditions, we use lasers […] on the fuel ball for a few nanoseconds”, explains the LLNL engineer. “This is the main difference: our experiment is of an implosive nature, whereas the Sun is a continuous reaction and the magnetic reactors operate for a few minutes. »

To enable ignition, the lasers are amplified by repeatedly passing through energized ion fields, before being fired at the cartridge. First located in the infrared, the lasers are generated thanks to the civil electrical network, at a rate of 300 megajoules per shot.

“To put it into perspective, in terms of the electric bill, today in the United States, charging the laser costs about $20. We don’t turn off the power across the city for every experience! »

The rays are then redirected to the test chamber by a set of mirrors, then converted from infrared to ultraviolet. They then converge, at the rate of sixteen rays per end, in a special cartridge. They will then meet its internal walls which are covered with gold, and these latter then convert the lasers into X-rays and send them back to the fuel ball contained in the cylinder.

“These X-rays will vaporize the surface of the marble […] and, according to the action/reaction principle, as it vaporizes outward, the reaction force will also compress it inward,” adds di Nicola.

Thus compressed by its own vaporization, the deuterium/tritium ball will also heat up to reach the temperature necessary for the initiation of fusion. Once the conditions have been reached, the deuterium and tritium atoms are no longer subjected to Coulomb’s law.

This physical law is responsible for the attraction of opposite poles of a magnet, the repulsion of identical poles, and is also valid for two atoms of the same electrical charge such as deuterium and tritium.

“Eventually, the laser generates 2 megajoules with a maximum peak of 500 quadrillion watts, all within nanoseconds. However, the reaction that takes place once the conditions are reached lasts only 100 picoseconds […] and, to achieve uniform spherical compression, all lasers must be aligned on target with an accuracy of 30 microns, or one-third the diameter of a human hair! »

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Historic breakthrough in nuclear research

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