My Top 10 Science Stories of 2005 – #7

PHYSICS

Tabletop Nuclear Fusion

By Davide Castelvecchi
It’s not cold fusion, but it surely sounds like it. Only this time, it seems to be true: a team of UCLA physicists has achieved the dream of unleashing the energy of the sun on a tabletop, by turning hydrogen into helium.

The physicists used a weird kind of crystal that produces intense electric fields when exposed to rapid temperature changes. They bathed the crystal in deuterium — a variant of hydrogen used in thermonuclear bombs — then cooled it and heated it. They reckoned that this treatment would generate electrostatic fields strong enough to strip atoms of their electrons and to smash them together with other atoms fast enough that they would fuse — all of that happening inside the crystal.

The amount of helium produced was very small and was not detected directly, but the team has convinced experts that fusion occurred because they observed a flow of neutrons that would be produced as a side effect.

The invention probably will never produce commercially useful amounts of energy, but producing neutrons with a simple, portable machine could be one day find medical applications.

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