Plasma: The Power of the Sun

Plasma: The Power of the Sun

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As we enter the 21st century the average human's life is dictated by the production and quantity of energy. This energy is produced in many different forms, from fossil fuel to hydro and solar power. Though this production of energy has sufficed up till now, a realization has occurred that the depletion of our current sources is imminent. As a result of this energy crisis, a race to find an alternative energy supply has been put forth. Through plasma fusion's nearly inexhaustible supply of fuel, its lack of greenhouse gases and the amazing spin-off technologies that have developed through plasma research, it is the answer to the current energy crises.


To understand the technology behind plasma fusion, fusion itself must be understood. Fusion is the combining of two or more atoms of low mass, which are initially attracted to each other, to form one atom of greater mass. When two atoms combine to form a single atom, they have fused. This fusing releases a large amount of energy with respect to the amount of mass and energy that was initially put into the reaction. This combination releases energy in the form of light and heat.

Energy is created in a fusion reaction through the loss of atomic mass from the beginning to the end of the reaction. The mass of the two atoms is significantly more than the mass of the new atom, which they fused together to form. This loss of mass is subsequently converted into pure energy in the form of light and heat. The reason for this amazing discovery is that mass is just a concentrated form of energy. This understanding between the relationship of mass and energy was discovered by Albert Einstein and illustrated in his famous equation E=mc^2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light. Through this equation the amount of energy held within a mass can be determined. In a plasma fusion reaction between two hydrogen atoms the decrease in mass is about 4x10^-29 kg. This mass is then converted to energy, equaling 23.9 MeV. "To appreciate the magnitude of this result note that if 1g of [hydrogen] is converted to helium, the energy released… would be worth about $70,000" (Physics for scientist and Engineers 1276).


In a fission event an example of a reaction at an atomic level is an (A)tomic-bomb. The A-bomb harnesses the power of an atom through an uncontrolled reaction.

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This reaction is fission, which is the opposite of fusion. In an A-bomb, atoms are being separated, not combined, which also creates a massive release of energy but causes a large amount of nuclear waste when harnessed as a source of power. Nuclear waste is created when any type of matter comes in contact with an atom that has gone through a fission reaction. The water that cools the system and the room that occupies the reaction all become radioactive nuclear waste. The collision from the neutron in the fission reaction causes the atom to become unstable, resulting in a radioactive substance. From this instability the atoms become radioactive and create instabilities within any other atom that they come in contact with. Not only does fusion lack this step in its process, but through fusion studies, scientists have been able to learn new and efficient ways to clean up the process of fission.

Fusion Waste

In both types of fusion reactions, inertial and magnetic, the wastes that are produced are basically the same. Before the fusion process is started, deuterium (3^H) needs to be extracted from water molecules, resulting in hydrogen and oxygen by-products. Both elements are absorbed into the air with no negative effect. After deuterium is created the fusion process can begin. When the deuterium and tritium atoms fuse together they create a surge of energy. As a result of their fusing a helium atom is created and a neutron is released (as illustrated in Fig. 1). Helium is a completely harmless gas that can be released into the atmosphere, but the neutron is currently a serious problem for plasma scientist.
After the neutron is released, due to the fusion of the 2^H and 3^H atoms, it travels at a high velocity until it hits something. The neutron will sometimes hit the lithium in the chamber, which creates more deuterium, but most often it collides into the walls of the reactor. Since the neutron is a neutrally charged particle it can travel through the magnetic fields that surround the plasma. This is a serious problem for the chamber. From the collisions of the neutrons the walls of the reactor break down and become very brittle. One of the ways scientist are going about combating this problem is by developing a new type of metal that can withstand a neutron collision. This development is an example of the many spin-off technologies that have been created to keep fusion technology moving into the future.

For fusion to work there are three essential elements for two attractive particles to become fused: temperature, time, and density. Without the appropriate ratio among these three elements fusion can not occur. Examples of particles that have been attracted to each other, but lack the density needed to create fusion, are lightning, neon signs, the aurora, and space nebulas. A basic idea between the relationship of temperature and density can be understood through an example of a steaming pot of hot water. The density of the hot water in the pot is much greater than the steam coming from the water. As a result of this the steam carries less heat than the water, so a person could put their hand in the steam with much more confidence than in the water (Newman). In a fusion reaction the example of this process lies in the plasma.


Plasma is considered the fourth state of matter, the first three being liquid, solid, and gas. For matter to reach this state it first has to be in a gas form, which is then stimulated in some way that causes the electrons to detach from the atom, leaving the atom ionized. "Without ionization it would be impossible to obtain plasma" (Kamenetskii 35). Ionization of a gas can form in three ways: heat, radiation, and electrical discharge. An example of ionization by electrical discharge is lightning. When the lightning strikes it separates the electrons from the air molecules which create plasma for a short period of time. Heat ionization is created in the sun. This occurs when a particle is heated to the point that it is close to the energy of the weakest bound electron. When the electron bond energy is equal to the heat of the atom the electron is no longer attracted to the atom and is pushed away, creating an ionized particle. Ionization in a fusion reaction is important because with the electrons detached from the atoms the plasma has an electrical charge, leaving them highly reactive to magnetic stimulation.

Inertial confinement operates on the idea of pushing two isotopes, deterium and tritium together using intense lasers, ion beams, or X-rays. This creates a significant amount of pressure on the atoms, compressing them to extremely high densities and temperatures, which allows the fusion to take place in a short amount of time because of the high density of the plasma (Fusion: Energy Source 1). In the first instances of the reaction the outer layers of the atom are blasted away, causing the atom's electrons to be separated from the nucleus and the atom to become plasma. "The resulting shock waves compress the fuel [atom] into high-density plasma. The compressed [atom] produces fusion energy until [it] disassembles, in about a billionth of a second" (Fusion Energy Science 5).During this process the atoms reach densities higher than the density at the center of the sun, and ignite at a temperature of more that 100,000,000 degrees centigrade! Though "inertial-confinement fusion has made impressive strides in recent years, the technological problems of delivering huge energies symmetrically to the target in a short time remain formidable" (Wolfson et al. 1216). As a result of this, many physicists believe the key to creating a workable fusion chamber on earth is through magnetic confinement.

Plasma fusion technological spin-offs are creating breakthroughs throughout our society. Plasma fusion research has spread into areas ranging from "cold" pasteurization of foods, new medical techniques, environmental cleanup, switch and welding technology, and plasma-based space and propulsion systems. These highly specialized fields have little in common with each other, but all benefit greatly from plasma research. In medicine the study of magnetically confined plasma has yielded MRI scanners, which have the ability to view and locate tumors and abnormalities that would have once required exploratory surgery. Environmentally, our world has reaped the rewards of plasma research. This has been achieved through new techniques of nuclear waste clean-up resulting from the advancement in Laser technologies gained through inertial confinement chambers. Also, new plasma research has developed ways to eliminate CO2 exhaust from cars.

The croyblaster unite is the nuclear waste clean-up technology that has resulted from plasma research. This technology is equivalent to sand blasting nuclear radiation from material. A basic idea on how this works is the cryoblaster directs pellets of frozen carbon dioxide at high velocities effectively cleaning the material without leaving any residue. This technology was developed from techniques that were used in developing inertial confinement chambers.

Fusion can be created in three different ways: gravitational confinement, magnetic confinement, and inertial confinement. Gravitational confinement is witnessed every day when we look up at the sun. Since the sun is so massive the gravity at its core is powerful enough to squeeze hydrogen atoms together to form helium atoms. Though this is an efficient method for stars, earths' gravity is insufficient to create fusion. The other two possibilities, magnetic and inertial confinements, are possible, and research is being focused in those areas.

In magnetic confinements a tokamak chamber has yielded the best results. A tokamak is "a toroidal device comprising a hollow doughnut-shaped vessel through which magnetic fields twists [;] it is the most common magnetic confinement device understudy" (Fusion: Energy Source 1). The basic idea behind the tokamak is to confine the plasma in a chamber and extract thermal energy through the fusion reaction. Since plasma is electrically charged it can essentially float through the chamber without touching the walls. This enables the plasma reaction to reach "temperatures in excess of 100,000,000 degrees centigrade (the temperature of the sun) [while staying] confined inside a metal chamber whose surface is nearer room temperature" (Glanz 7).

While the temperature of the plasma is very high its density is very low; the density in the chamber is "lower than atmospheric density"(1216 Physics). With the density being so low the plasma acts like the steam in the pot of hot water. The reason the plasma can have such a low density and still create fusion is because of the long confinement times in side the chamber, sometimes reaching up to several seconds in some devices.

Work Cited

Frank-Kamenetskii, D. A. Plasma: The Fourth State of Matter. Trans. Joesph Norwood, Jr. New York: Plenum Press, 1972.

"Fusion: Physics of a Fundamental Energy Source." 1996.

Glanz, James. "The Pervasive Plasma State." Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin.

Professor David Newman. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2002.

Serway, Paymond A., Robert J. Beichner and John W. Jewett, Jr. Physics for Scientist and Engineers. 5th ed. Toronto: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000.

Surko, Clifford, et al. Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 1995.

United States Department of Energy. Offices of Fusion Energy Sciences. Fusion Energy Science. Washington D.C.: National Laboratory, Jan. 2001

U. S. Department of Energy. Offices of Fusion Energy Sciencses. "The Surprising Benefits of Creating A Star." Oct. 2001. Oct 2001 .

Wolfson, Richard and Jay M. Pasachoff. Physics with Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers. 3rd ed. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1999.

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