SURPRISES SCIENTIST WITH ITS SIMPLICITY!
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by: Dan Vergano
A HANDHELD DEVICE CAN GENERATE TINY NUCLEAR - FUSION REACTIONS AT ROOM TEMPERATURES UCLA RESEARCHERS REPORTED THURSDAY.
This development, which scientists heralded as “amazing,” has no present practical application at the moment but lots of potential.
Not strong enough to produce either power or explosions, the gadget produces at most about 800 neutrons each second, a puny amount. But the device might one day become a cheaper and more precise way to screen airport baggage or to propel small spacecraft, the device’s creators say.
“It makes me marvel at Mother Nature,” says UCLA’s Seth Putterman, co-author of the study published in today’s Nature journal. Nuclear fusion forges a single heavy atom out of two lighter ones, releasing energy and neutrons. Neutrons penetrate materials, leading to their use in screening baggage and hunting for oil wells.
But conventional neutron generators often require both high—voltage and tritium, an expensive and radioactive form of hydrogen. Scientists also fear the presence of tritium, a possible “dirty bomb” ingredient, in public places.
In contrast, the main component in the device, a pyro-electric crystal, costs about $50, Putterman says. And its portability may eventually give it other advantages, the researchers say. For example, if miniaturized, it could be implanted in the body as an X-ray treatment.
To pull off the fusion feat, the team relied on a pyro-electric crystal, so named because it becomes electrically charged when heated. After freezing the crystal, the team heated it to 22 degrees in a chamber filled with deuterium gas. Deuterium is a “heavy” form of hydrogen that is more amenable to fusion reactions. Battered by the crystal’s strong electric field, deuterium atoms zipped across the chamber into a solid deuterium target, fusing with atoms to produce helium and neutrons.
“What we’re seeing is a very creative idea that produced amazing results” says Ben Stein of the American Institute of Physics . “It creates about a trillionth of the energy needed to heat a cup of coffee. But the fact that a fusion device operates at room temperatures is amazing.” Conventional generators operate at very high temperatures because ot the required voltage.
“Indeed, in some ways it is remarkably low-tech,” physicist Michael Saltmarsh of the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory writes in a commentary on the report. “The advantages in simplicity and portability over conventional neutron generators could be considerable.”
Says Putterman: “Our hope is that when scientists realize fusion can be scaled down and self-contained, that it generates a lot of new ideas.” For now, the researchers are working to scale up the device to produce 1,000 times more neutrons. The Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency finances the research.
Conventional neutron generators
have many uses now:
Mine and oil exploration
Body fat measurement
A new low-power, handheld
nuclear-fusion device could
have even more:
X-ray tumor targeting
Neutron “camera’ to see
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