Scientists developing pulsed nuclear fusion system for distant missions
A physics team from The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering soon will take delivery of a specialized system to see if they can “Z-pinch” a tiny bit of that salt into the heart of a star.
“We are trying to develop a small, lightweight pulsed nuclear fusion system for deep space missions,” explained Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of engineering at UAHuntsville. “If this works we could reach Mars in six to eight weeks instead of six to eight months.”
In hockey, a slapshot digs the head of the hockey stick into the ice to bend the shaft, like an archer’s bow, storing energy for a sharper snap against the puck and drive it down the ice rink. Cassibry and his team will attempt to drive a hollowed-out puck in on itself, fusing lithium and hydrogen atoms and turning a little of their mass into pure energy.
The “pucks” are approximately two inches wide and an inch thick, smaller than a regulation three-inch puck. They are made of lithium deuteride (LH 2), the lightest metal combined with the middle-weight form of the lightest element.
Nuclear fusion is the process at the heart of the Sun, where four hydrogen atoms combine to make one helium atom, with a small amount of matter converting into pure energy. The UAHuntsville experiments will start at the midpoint of that cycle, where heavy hydrogen (one proton plus one neutron) fuse with each other or with lithium (not a normal part of solar fusion). But getting nuclei together is like firing two positively charged BBs up the slopes of Mount Everest to meet head-on at the peak.