I was browsing the energy section of ScienceDaily and came across an alternative-energy article about using extremely compressed heavy hydrogen – deuterium – to produce energy by fusion. Very cool stuff.
Nuclear fusion is the name given to the process of combining the nuclei of two atoms together into one new atom. Depending on what you’re smashing together, the process might absorb energy or it might release it. In general, for lighter elements, it releases energy. Fusion is what happens inside stars, and what makes them release energy. (This is is contrast to fission, which is the splitting apart of atomic nuclei into smaller bits, which might also absorb or release – as in, nuclear bomb – energy.)
Deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, is a hydrogen atom with a neutron in it (regular hydrogen has no neutron). When two deuterium isotopes (atoms with odd numbers of neutrons) combine with a water atom, you get D2O: heavy water.
If you can make two deuterium isotopes fuse, you get fusion energy. Quite a lot of energy, in fact. But it’s not so easy to make them fuse. Which is a shame, because hydrogen is the universe’s most plentiful element, and finding or making deuterium isn’t much more difficult.
What the ScienceDaily article describes is that researchers at the University of Gothenburg have been able to fuse deuterium pretty efficiently using lasers if they first compress the deuterium into an ultra-dense form. Like really dense: they’re producing microscopic amounts of it in Gothenburg, but a 10cm cube of it would weigh 130 tonnes. Denser than the core of the sun.
But if you can produce that ultra-dense deuterium the atoms are so close together that you can feasibly produce fusion. And voila, energy. And they claim they may be able to tweak the process so that, unlike other nuclear energy processes that produce highly radioactive waste, all this system spits out is non-radioactive helium and hydrogen. Wunderbar.
I’m glad that alternative energy research isn’t stopping at wind and solar. Think, you big brains, think!