Physicists discover how to safely create star power on Earth

Princeton scientists find a new way to control nuclear fusion reactions.

Physicists discover how to safely create star power on Earth

Fusion reactions on the sun.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. (Courtesy: NASA/SDO)
  • A new study from Princeton physicists successfully uses boron powder to control nuclear reactions in plasma.
  • Creating plasma can lead to an unlimited supply of energy.
  • The new method is cheaper and less dangerous than previous approaches.


Humanity's huge appetite for energy has led scientists to attempt harnessing nuclear fusion, the power inherent to the sun and other stars. Now, a new study from Princeton physicists found a method that can aid the safe creation of fusion on Earth, potentially leading to a limitless supply of electricity.

Fusion reactors work by combining light elements like hydrogen into plasma – a superhot and charged state of matter. During the fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei are combined into a heavier nucleus, releasing energy.

The resulting plasma can be employed into generating a tremendous amount of energy but the fusion facilities, called tokamaks, face the hard task of trying to keep impurities out of reactions. These can lower the efficiency of the fusion, while the goal of the scientists is to keep the plasma as hot as it can be, actually ten times hotter than the sun's core. This maximizes fusion reactions and leads to the creation of the greatest amount of electricity.

What scientists from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) discovered is a way to inject boron powder into plasma, allowing for greater control, lowering greenhouse gases, and getting rid of long-term radioactive waste.

PPPL physicist Robert Lunsford was the lead author of the paper, published in Nuclear Fusion, that outlined the accomplishment.

"The main goal of the experiment was to see if we could lay down a layer of boron using a powder injector," said Lunsford in a press release. "So far, the experiment appears to have been successful."

Michio Kaku: Energies of the Future

By 2030 the physicist expects that we will have hot fusion reactors.

The method devised by Lunsford and his team uses boron to prevent tungsten in tokamak walls from interacting with the plasma. The tungsten can cause the plasma particles to cool, lowering reaction efficiency. The so-called boronization of surfaces that face the plasma is easier to accomplish with the powder, as it's something that can be done while the machine is already running. This can allow the fusion device to be an uninterrupted source of energy. "This is one way to get to a steady-state fusion machine," remarked Lunsford.

The powder method is also cheaper and less dangerous than the current practice of injecting potentially explosive diborane gas into the plasma.

The scientists envision further investigating the uses of boron powder, optimistic that this approach can allow them to understand the behavior of plasma in unprecedented depth.

Check out their new paper here.

PPPL physicist Robert Lunsford.

CREDIT: Elle Starkman / PPPL Office of Communications

New study cautions marijuana beginners to 26 adverse reactions

Researchers documented the most common negative side effects of smoking weed, and who might be most susceptible.

Surprising Science
  • A team of researchers identified a total of 26 possible adverse reactions to cannabis use.
  • Coughing fits, anxiety, and paranoia are among the top three most common adverse reactions to smoking weed.
  • It was the people who smoke on a less frequent basis who were more likely to have had the bad experiences.
Keep reading Show less

Why San Francisco felt like the set of a sci-fi flick

But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.

Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.

Keep reading Show less

Finland is the 'most sustainable' country, say expats

India finishes last of 60 countries in environment and sustainability, as ranked by the expats who work there.

Orange is best, blue is worst on this world map for the 'sustainable expat'.

Image: Environment & Sustainability Ranking, an Expat Insider topical report published by InterNations
Strange Maps
  • How 'green' is life in your work country?
  • That's the question InterNations asked its network of expats.
  • The United States ended 30th out of 60 countries.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast