Friday, October 30, 2009

Nuclear weapon

A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter; a modern thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than a thousand kilograms can produce an explosion comparable to the detonation of more than a billion kilograms of conventional high explosive.

Thus, even single small nuclear devices no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire and radiation. Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control has been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

In the history of warfare, only two nuclear weapons have been detonated offensively, both near the end of World War II. The first was detonated on the morning of 6 August 1945, when the United States dropped a uranium gun-type device code-named "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The second was detonated three days later when the United States dropped a plutonium implosion-type device code-named "Fat Man" on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. These bombings resulted in the immediate deaths of around 120,000 people (mostly civilians) from injuries sustained from the explosion and acute radiation sickness, and even more deaths from long-term effects of ionizing radiation. The use of these weapons was and remains controversial.

Since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for testing purposes and demonstration purposes. A few states have possessed such weapons or are suspected of seeking them. The only countries known to have detonated nuclear weapons—and that acknowledge possessing such weapons—are (chronologically) the United States, the Soviet Union (succeeded as a nuclear power by Russia), the United Kingdom, France, the People's Republic of China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is also widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it does not acknowledge having them.

Types of nuclear weapons

The two basic fission weapon designs

There are two basic types of nuclear weapon. The first type produces its explosive energy through nuclear fission reactions alone. Such fission weapons are commonly referred to as atomic bombs or atom bombs (abbreviated as A-bombs), though their energy comes specifically from the nucleus of the atom.

In fission weapons, a mass of fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium) is assembled into a supercritical mass—the amount of material needed to start an exponentially growing nuclear chain reaction—either by shooting one piece of sub-critical material into another (the "gun" method), or by compressing a sub-critical sphere of material using chemical explosives to many times its original density (the "implosion" method). The latter approach is considered more sophisticated than the former, and only the latter approach can be used if plutonium is the fissile material.

A major challenge in all nuclear weapon designs is to ensure that a significant fraction of the fuel is consumed before the weapon destroys itself. The amount of energy released by fission bombs can range between the equivalent of less than a ton of TNT upwards to around 500,000 tons (500 kilotons) of TNT.

The second basic type of nuclear weapon produces a large amount of its energy through nuclear fusion reactions. Such fusion weapons are generally referred to as thermonuclear weapons or more colloquially as hydrogen bombs (abbreviated as H-bombs), as they rely on fusion reactions between isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium). However, all such weapons derive a significant portion – and sometimes a majority – of their energy from fission (including fission induced by neutrons from fusion reactions). Unlike fission weapons, there are no inherent limits on the energy released by thermonuclear weapons. Only six countries—United States, Russia, United Kingdom, People's Republic of China, France and India—have conducted thermonuclear weapon tests. (Whether India has detonated a "true," multi-staged thermonuclear weapon is controversial.)

The basics of the Teller–Ulam design for a hydrogen bomb: a fission bomb uses radiation to compress and heat a separate section of fusion fuel.

Thermonuclear bombs work by using the energy of a fission bomb in order to compress and heat fusion fuel. In the Teller-Ulam design, which accounts for all multi-megaton yield hydrogen bombs, this is accomplished by placing a fission bomb and fusion fuel (tritium, deuterium, or lithium deuteride) in proximity within a special, radiation-reflecting container. When the fission bomb is detonated, gamma and X-rays emitted first compress the fusion fuel, then heat it to thermonuclear temperatures. The ensuing fusion reaction creates enormous numbers of high-speed neutrons, which then can induce fission in materials which normally are not prone to it, such as depleted uranium. Each of these components is known as a "stage," with the fission bomb as the "primary" and the fusion capsule as the "secondary." In large hydrogen bombs, about half of the yield, and much of the resulting nuclear fallout, comes from the final fissioning of depleted uranium.

By chaining together numerous stages with increasing amounts of fusion fuel, thermonuclear weapons can be made to an almost arbitrary yield; the largest ever detonated (the Tsar Bomba of the USSR) released an energy equivalent to over 50 million tons (50 megatons) of TNT. Most thermonuclear weapons are considerably smaller than this, due for instance to practical constraints in fitting them into the space and weight requirements of missile warheads.

There are other types of nuclear weapons as well. For example, a boosted fission weapon is a fission bomb which increases its explosive yield through a small amount of fusion reactions, but it is not a fusion bomb. In the boosted bomb, the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions serve primarily to increase the efficiency of the fission bomb. Some weapons are designed for special purposes; a neutron bomb is a thermonuclear weapon that yields a relatively small explosion but a relatively large amount of neutron radiation; such a device could theoretically be used to cause massive casualties while leaving infrastructure mostly intact and creating a minimal amount of fallout.

The detonation of a nuclear weapon is accompanied by a blast of neutron radiation. Surrounding a nuclear weapon with suitable materials (such as cobalt or gold) creates a weapon known as a salted bomb. This device can produce exceptionally large quantities of radioactive contamination. Most variety in nuclear weapon design is in different yields of nuclear weapons for different types of purposes, and in manipulating design elements to attempt to make weapons extremely small.

Nuclear strategy

The United States' Peacekeeper missile was a MIRVed delivery system. Each missile could contain up to ten nuclear warheads (shown in red), each of which could be aimed at a different target. These were developed to make missile defense very difficult for an enemy country.

Nuclear warfare strategy is a way for either fighting or avoiding a nuclear war. The policy of trying to ward off a potential attack by a nuclear weapon from another country by threatening nuclear retaliation is known as the strategy of nuclear deterrence. The goal in deterrence is to always maintain a second strike status (the ability of a country to respond to a nuclear attack with one of its own) and potentially to strive for first strike status (the ability to completely destroy an enemy's nuclear forces before they could retaliate). During the Cold War, policy and military theorists in nuclear-enabled countries worked out models of what sorts of policies could prevent one from ever being attacked by a nuclear weapon.

Different forms of nuclear weapons delivery (see below) allow for different types of nuclear strategy, primarily by making it difficult to defend against them and difficult to launch a pre-emptive strike against them. Sometimes this has meant keeping the weapon locations hidden, such as putting it on submarines or train cars whose locations are very hard for an enemy to track, and other times this means burying them in hardened bunkers.

Other responses have included attempts to make it seem likely that the country could survive a nuclear attack, by using missile defense (to destroy the missiles before they land) or by means of civil defense (using early warning systems to evacuate citizens to a safe area before an attack). Note that weapons which are designed to threaten large populations or to generally deter attacks are known as strategic weapons. Weapons which are designed to actually be used on a battlefield in military situations are known as tactical weapons.

There are critics of the very idea of nuclear strategy for waging nuclear war who have suggested that a nuclear war between two nuclear powers would result in mutual annihilation. From this point of view, the significance of nuclear weapons is purely to deter war because any nuclear war would immediately escalate out of mutual distrust and fear, resulting in mutually assured destruction. This threat of national, if not global, destruction has been a strong motivation for anti-nuclear weapons activism.

Critics from the peace movement and within the military establishment have questioned the usefulness of such weapons in the current military climate. The use of (or threat of use of) such weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, according to an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in 1996.

Perhaps the most controversial idea in nuclear strategy is that nuclear proliferation would be desirable. This view argues that, unlike conventional weapons, nuclear weapons successfully deter all-out war between states, and they are said to have done this during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Political scientist Kenneth Waltz is the most prominent advocate of this argument.

It has been claimed that the threat of potentially suicidal terrorists possessing nuclear weapons (a form of nuclear terrorism) complicates the decision process. Mutually assured destruction may not be effective against an enemy who expects to die in a confrontation, as they may feel they will be rewarded in a religious afterlife as martyrs and would not therefore be deterred by a sense of self-preservation. Further, if the initial act is from rogue groups of individuals instead of a nation, there is no fixed nation or fixed military targets to retaliate against. It has been argued, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, that this complication is the sign of the next age of nuclear strategy, distinct from the relative stability of the Cold War.

Weapons delivery

The first nuclear weapons were gravity bombs, such as this "Fat Man" weapon dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. They were very large and could only be delivered by heavy bomber aircraft

Nuclear weapons delivery—the technology and systems used to bring a nuclear weapon to its target—is an important aspect of nuclear weapons relating both to nuclear weapon design and nuclear strategy. Additionally, developing and maintaining delivery options is among the most resource-intensive aspects of nuclear weapons: according to one estimate, deployment of nuclear weapons accounted for 57% of the total financial resources spent by the United States in relation to nuclear weapons since 1940.

Historically the first method of delivery, and the method used in the two nuclear weapons actually used in warfare, is as a gravity bomb, dropped from bomber aircraft. This method is usually the first developed by countries as it does not place many restrictions on the size of the weapon, and weapon miniaturization is something which requires considerable weapons design knowledge. It does, however, limit the range of attack, the response time to an impending attack, and the number of weapons which can be fielded at any given time.

Additionally, specialized delivery systems are usually not necessary; especially with the advent of miniaturization, nuclear bombs can be delivered by both strategic bombers and tactical fighter-bombers, allowing an air force to use its current fleet with little or no modification. This method may still be considered the primary means of nuclear weapons delivery; the majority of U.S. nuclear warheads, for example, are represented in free-fall gravity bombs, namely the B61.

More preferable from a strategic point of view are nuclear weapons mounted onto a missile, which can use a ballistic trajectory to deliver a warhead over the horizon. While even short range missiles allow for a faster and less vulnerable attack, the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) has allowed some nations to plausibly deliver missiles anywhere on the globe with a high likelihood of success.

More advanced systems, such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) allow multiple warheads to be launched at several targets from any one missile, reducing the chance of any successful missile defense. Today, missiles are most common among systems designed for delivery of nuclear weapons. Making a warhead small enough to fit onto a missile, though, can be a difficult task.

Tactical weapons (see above) have involved the most variety of delivery types, including not only gravity bombs and missiles but also artillery shells, land mines, and nuclear depth charges and torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare. An atomic mortar was also tested at one time by the United States. Small, two-man portable tactical weapons (somewhat misleadingly referred to as suitcase bombs), such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition, have been developed, although the difficulty to combine sufficient yield with portability limits their military utility.

Governance, control, and law

The International Atomic Energy Agency was created in 1957 in order to encourage the peaceful development of nuclear technology while providing international safeguards against nuclear proliferation

Because of the immense military power they can confer, the political control of nuclear weapons has been a key issue for as long as they have existed; in most countries the use of nuclear force can only be authorized by the head of government or head of state.

In the late 1940s, lack of mutual trust was preventing the United States and the Soviet Union from making ground towards international arms control agreements, but by the 1960s steps were being taken to limit both the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries and the environmental effects of nuclear testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) restricted all nuclear testing to underground nuclear testing, to prevent contamination from nuclear fallout, while the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) attempted to place restrictions on the types of activities which signatories could participate in, with the goal of allowing the transference of non-military nuclear technology to member countries without fear of proliferation.

In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established under the mandate of the United Nations in order to encourage the development of the peaceful applications of nuclear technology, provide international safeguards against its misuse, and facilitate the application of safety measures in its use. In 1996, many nations signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which prohibits all testing of nuclear weapons, which would impose a significant hindrance to their development by any complying country.

Additional treaties have governed nuclear weapons stockpiles between individual countries, such as the SALT I and START I treaties, which limited the numbers and types of nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Nuclear weapons have also been opposed by agreements between countries. Many nations have been declared Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, areas where nuclear weapons production and deployment are prohibited, through the use of treaties. The Treaty of Tlatelolco (1967) prohibited any production or deployment of nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Treaty of Pelindaba (1964) prohibits nuclear weapons in many African countries. As recently as 2006 a Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone was established amongst the former Soviet republics of Central Asia prohibiting nuclear weapons.

In the middle of 1996, the International Court of Justice, the highest court of the United Nations, issued an Advisory Opinion concerned with the "Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons". The court ruled that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would violate various articles of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Additionally, there have been other, specific actions meant to discourage countries from developing nuclear arms. In the wake of the tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, economic sanctions were (temporarily) levied against both countries, though neither were signatories with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of the stated casus belli for the initiation of the 2003 Iraq War was an accusation by the United States that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear arms (though this was soon discovered not to be the case as the program had been discontinued). In 1981, Israel had bombed a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq, in what it called an attempt to halt Iraq's previous nuclear arms ambitions.[citation needed]


Beginning with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and continuing through the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, there have been many treaties to limit or reduce nuclear weapons testing and stockpiles. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has as one of its explicit conditions that all signatories must "pursue negotiations in good faith" towards the long-term goal of "complete disarmament". However, no nuclear state has treated that aspect of the agreement as having binding force.

Only one country—South Africa—has ever fully renounced nuclear weapons they had independently developed. A number of former Soviet republics—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—returned Soviet nuclear arms stationed in their countries to Russia after the collapse of the USSR.


Apart from their use as weapons, nuclear explosives have been tested and used for various non-military uses, and proposed, but not used for large scale earth moving. When long term health and clean-up costs were included, there was no economic advantage over conventional explosives.

Synthetic elements, such as einsteinium and fermium, created by neutron bombardment of uranium and plutonium during thermonuclear explosions, were discovered in the aftermath of the first thermonuclear bomb test. In 2008 the worldwide presence of new isotopes from atmospheric testing beginning in the 1950s was developed into a reliable way of detecting art forgeries, as all paintings created after that period contain traces of cesium-137 and strontium-90, isotopes that did not exist in nature before 1945.

Nuclear explosives have also been seriously studied as potential propulsion mechanisms for space travel

Nuclear weapon

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fusion is the process by which multiple like-charged atomic nuclei join together to form a heavier nucleus. It is accompanied by the release or absorption of energy, which allows matter to enter a plasma state.

The fusion of two nuclei with lower mass than iron (which, along with nickel, has the largest binding energy per nucleon) generally releases energy while the fusion of nuclei heavier than iron absorbs energy; vice-versa for the reverse process, nuclear fission. In the simplest case of hydrogen fusion, two protons have to be brought close enough for their mutual electric repulsion to be overcome by the nuclear force and the subsequent release of energy.

Nuclear fusion occurs naturally in stars. Artificial fusion in human enterprises has also been achieved, although has not yet been completely controlled. Building upon the nuclear transmutation experiments of Ernest Rutherford done a few years earlier, fusion of light nuclei (hydrogen isotopes) was first observed by Mark Oliphant in 1932; the steps of the main cycle of nuclear fusion in stars were subsequently worked out by Hans Bethe throughout the remainder of that decade. Research into fusion for military purposes began in the early 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, but was not successful until 1952. Research into controlled fusion for civilian purposes began in the 1950s, and continues to this day.


Nuclear physics
CNO Cycle.svg

Fusion reactions power the stars and produce all but the lightest elements in a process called nucleosynthesis. Although the fusion of lighter elements in stars releases energy, production of the heavier elements absorbs energy.

When the fusion reaction is a sustained uncontrolled chain, it can result in a thermonuclear explosion, such as that generated by a hydrogen bomb. Reactions which are not self-sustaining can still release considerable energy, as well as large numbers of neutrons.

Research into controlled fusion, with the aim of producing fusion power for the production of electricity, has been conducted for over 50 years. It has been accompanied by extreme scientific and technological difficulties, but has resulted in progress. At present, break-even (self-sustaining) controlled fusion reactions have not been demonstrated in the few tokamak-type reactors around the world.[2] Workable designs for a reactor which will theoretically deliver ten times more fusion energy than the amount needed to heat up plasma to required temperatures (see ITER) is scheduled to be operational in 2018.

It takes considerable energy to force nuclei to fuse, even those of the lightest element, hydrogen. This is because all nuclei have a positive charge (due to their protons), and as like charges repel, nuclei strongly resist being put too close together. Accelerated to high speeds (that is, heated to thermonuclear temperatures), they can overcome this electromagnetic repulsion and get close enough for the attractive nuclear force to be sufficiently strong to achieve fusion. The fusion of lighter nuclei, which creates a heavier nucleus and a free neutron, generally releases more energy than it takes to force the nuclei together; this is an exothermic process that can produce self-sustaining reactions.

The energy released in most nuclear reactions is much larger than that in chemical reactions, because the binding energy that holds a nucleus together is far greater than the energy that holds electrons to a nucleus. For example, the ionization energy gained by adding an electron to a hydrogen nucleus is 13.6 electron volts—less than one-millionth of the 17 MeV released in the D-T (deuterium-tritium) reaction shown in the diagram to the right. Fusion reactions have an energy density many times greater than nuclear fission; i.e., the reactions produce far greater energies per unit of mass even though individual fission reactions are generally much more energetic than individual fusion ones, which are themselves millions of times more energetic than chemical reactions. Only direct conversion of mass into energy, such as that caused by the collision of matter and antimatter, is more energetic per unit of mass than nuclear fusion.


A substantial energy barrier of electrostatic forces must be overcome before fusion can occur. At large distances two naked nuclei repel one another because of the repulsive electrostatic force between their positively charged protons. If two nuclei can be brought close enough together, however, the electrostatic repulsion can be overcome by the attractive nuclear force which is stronger at close distances.

When a nucleon such as a proton or neutron is added to a nucleus, the nuclear force attracts it to other nucleons, but primarily to its immediate neighbours due to the short range of the force. The nucleons in the interior of a nucleus have more neighboring nucleons than those on the surface. Since smaller nuclei have a larger surface area-to-volume ratio, the binding energy per nucleon due to the nuclear force generally increases with the size of the nucleus but approaches a limiting value corresponding to that of a nucleus with a diameter of about four nucleons.

The electrostatic force, on the other hand, is an inverse-square force, so a proton added to a nucleus will feel an electrostatic repulsion from all the other protons in the nucleus. The electrostatic energy per nucleon due to the electrostatic force thus increases without limit as nuclei get larger.

At short distances the attractive nuclear force is stronger than the repulsive electrostatic force. As such, the main technical difficulty for fusion is getting the nuclei close enough to fuse. Distances not to scale.

The net result of these opposing forces is that the binding energy per nucleon generally increases with increasing size, up to the elements iron and nickel, and then decreases for heavier nuclei. Eventually, the binding energy becomes negative and very heavy nuclei (all with more than 208 nucleons, corresponding to a diameter of about 6 nucleons) are not stable. The four most tightly bound nuclei, in decreasing order of binding energy, are 62Ni, 58Fe, 56Fe, and 60Ni.[3] Even though the nickel isotope ,62Ni, is more stable, the iron isotope 56Fe is an order of magnitude more common. This is due to a greater disintegration rate for 62Ni in the interior of stars driven by photon absorption.

A notable exception to this general trend is the helium-4 nucleus, whose binding energy is higher than that of lithium, the next heaviest element. The Pauli exclusion principle provides an explanation for this exceptional behavior—it says that because protons and neutrons are fermions, they cannot exist in exactly the same state. Each proton or neutron energy state in a nucleus can accommodate both a spin up particle and a spin down particle. Helium-4 has an anomalously large binding energy because its nucleus consists of two protons and two neutrons; so all four of its nucleons can be in the ground state. Any additional nucleons would have to go into higher energy states.

The situation is similar if two nuclei are brought together. As they approach each other, all the protons in one nucleus repel all the protons in the other. Not until the two nuclei actually come in contact can the strong nuclear force take over. Consequently, even when the final energy state is lower, there is a large energy barrier that must first be overcome. It is called the Coulomb barrier.

The Coulomb barrier is smallest for isotopes of hydrogen—they contain only a single positive charge in the nucleus. A bi-proton is not stable, so neutrons must also be involved, ideally in such a way that a helium nucleus, with its extremely tight binding, is one of the products.

Using deuterium-tritium fuel, the resulting energy barrier is about 0.01 MeV.[citation needed] In comparison, the energy needed to remove an electron from hydrogen is 13.6 eV, about 750 times less energy. The (intermediate) result of the fusion is an unstable 5He nucleus, which immediately ejects a neutron with 14.1 MeV.[citation needed] The recoil energy of the remaining 4He nucleus is 3.5 MeV,[citation needed] so the total energy liberated is 17.6 MeV.[citation needed] This is many times more than what was needed to overcome the energy barrier.

If the energy to initiate the reaction comes from accelerating one of the nuclei, the process is called beam-target fusion; if both nuclei are accelerated, it is beam-beam fusion. If the nuclei are part of a plasma near thermal equilibrium, one speaks of thermonuclear fusion. Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of particles, so by heating the nuclei they will gain energy and eventually have enough to overcome this 0.01 MeV. Converting the units between electronvolts and kelvins shows that the barrier would be overcome at a temperature in excess of 120 million kelvins, obviously a very high temperature.

There are two effects that lower the actual temperature needed. One is the fact that temperature is the average kinetic energy, implying that some nuclei at this temperature would actually have much higher energy than 0.01 MeV, while others would be much lower. It is the nuclei in the high-energy tail of the velocity distribution that account for most of the fusion reactions. The other effect is quantum tunneling. The nuclei do not actually have to have enough energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier completely. If they have nearly enough energy, they can tunnel through the remaining barrier. For this reason fuel at lower temperatures will still undergo fusion events, at a lower rate.

The fusion reaction rate increases rapidly with temperature until it maximizes and then gradually drops off. The DT rate peaks at a lower temperature (about 70 keV, or 800 million kelvins) and at a higher value than other reactions commonly considered for fusion energy.

The reaction cross section σ is a measure of the probability of a fusion reaction as a function of the relative velocity of the two reactant nuclei. If the reactants have a distribution of velocities, e.g. a thermal distribution with thermonuclear fusion, then it is useful to perform an average over the distributions of the product of cross section and velocity. The reaction rate (fusions per volume per time) is <σv> times the product of the reactant number densities:

f = n_1 n_2 \langle \sigma v \rangle.

If a species of nuclei is reacting with itself, such as the DD reaction, then the product n1n2 must be replaced by (1 / 2)n2.

\langle \sigma v \rangle increases from virtually zero at room temperatures up to meaningful magnitudes at temperatures of 10100 keV. At these temperatures, well above typical ionization energies (13.6 eV in the hydrogen case), the fusion reactants exist in a plasma state.

The significance of \langle \sigma v \rangle as a function of temperature in a device with a particular energy confinement time is found by considering the Lawson criterion.

[edit] Gravitational confinement

One force capable of confining the fuel well enough to satisfy the Lawson criterion is gravity. The mass needed, however, is so great that gravitational confinement is only found in stars (the smallest of which are brown dwarfs). Even if the more reactive fuel deuterium were used, a mass greater than that of the planet Jupiter would be needed. In stars heavy enough, after the supply of hydrogen is exhausted in their cores, their cores (or a shell around the core) start fusing helium to carbon. In the most massive stars (at least 8-11 solar masses), the process is continued until some of their energy is produced by fusing lighter elements to iron. As iron has one of the highest binding energies, reactions producing heavier elements are generally endothermic. Therefore significant amounts of heavier elements are not formed during stable periods of massive star evolution, but are formed in supernova explosions and some lighter stars. Some of these heavier elements can in turn produce energy in nuclear fission.

Magnetic confinement

See Magnetic confinement fusion for more information.

Electrically charged particles (such as fuel ions) will follow magnetic field lines (see Guiding center). The fusion fuel can therefore be trapped using a strong magnetic field. A variety of magnetic configurations exist, including the toroidal geometries of tokamaks and stellarators and open-ended mirror confinement systems.

Inertial confinement

See Inertial fusion energy for more information.

A third confinement principle is to apply a rapid pulse of energy to a large part of the surface of a pellet of fusion fuel, causing it to simultaneously "implode" and heat to very high pressure and temperature. If the fuel is dense enough and hot enough, the fusion reaction rate will be high enough to burn a significant fraction of the fuel before it has dissipated. To achieve these extreme conditions, the initially cold fuel must be explosively compressed. Inertial confinement is used in the hydrogen bomb, where the driver is x-rays created by a fission bomb. Inertial confinement is also attempted in "controlled" nuclear fusion, where the driver is a laser, ion, or electron beam, or a Z-pinch. Another method is to use conventional high explosive material to compress a fuel to fusion conditions. The UTIAS explosive-driven-implosion facility was used to produce stable, centered and focused hemispherical implosions to generate neutrons from D-D reactions. The simplest and most direct method proved to be in a predetonated stoichiometric mixture of deuterium-oxygen. The other successful method was using a miniature Voitenko compressor, where a plane diaphragm was driven by the implosion wave into a secondary small spherical cavity that contained pure deuterium gas at one atmosphere.

Some confinement principles have been investigated, such as muon-catalyzed fusion, the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor and Polywell (inertial electrostatic confinement), and bubble fusion.

Production methods

A variety of methods are known to effect nuclear fusion. Some are "cold" in the strict sense that no part of the material is hot (except for the reaction products), some are "cold" in the limited sense that the bulk of the material is at a relatively low temperature and pressure but the reactants are not, and some are "hot" fusion methods that create macroscopic regions of very high temperature and pressure.

Locally cold fusion

Muon-catalyzed fusion is a well-established and reproducible fusion process that occurs at ordinary temperatures. It was studied in detail by Steven Jones in the early 1980s. It has not been reported to produce net energy. Net energy production from this reaction is not believed to be possible[citation needed] because of the energy required to create muons, their 2.2 µs half-life, and the chance that a muon will bind to the new alpha particle and thus stop catalyzing fusion.

Generally cold, locally hot fusion

Accelerator based light-ion fusion. Using particle accelerators it is possible to achieve particle kinetic energies sufficient to induce many light ion fusion reactions. Accelerating light ions is relatively easy, cheap, and can be done in an efficient manner – all it takes is a vacuum tube, a pair of electrodes, and a high-voltage transformer; fusion can be observed with as little as 10 kilovolt between electrodes. The key problem with accelerator-based fusion (and with cold targets in general) is that fusion cross sections are many orders of magnitude lower than Coulomb interaction cross sections. Therefore vast majority of ions ends up expending their energy on bremsstrahlung and ionization of atoms of the target. Devices referred to as sealed-tube neutron generators are particularly relevant to this discussion. These small devices are miniature particle accelerators filled with deuterium and tritium gas in an arrangement which allows ions of these nuclei to be accelerated against hydride targets, also containing deuterium and tritium, where fusion takes place. Hundreds of neutron generators are produced annually for use in the petroleum industry where they are used in measurement equipment for locating and mapping oil reserves. Despite periodic reports in the popular press by scientists claiming to have invented "table-top" fusion machines, neutron generators have been around for half a century. The sizes of these devices vary but the smallest instruments are often packaged in sizes smaller than a loaf of bread. These devices do not produce a net power output.

In sonoluminescence, acoustic shock waves create temporary bubbles that collapse shortly after creation, producing very high temperatures and pressures. In 2002, Rusi P. Taleyarkhan reported the possibility that bubble fusion occurs in those collapsing bubbles (aka sonofusion). As of 2005, experiments to determine whether fusion is occurring give conflicting results. If fusion is occurring, it is because the local temperature and pressure are sufficiently high to produce hot fusion. In an episode of Horizon, on BBC television, results were presented showing that, although temperatures were reached which could initiate fusion on a large scale, no fusion was occurring, and inaccuracies in the measuring system were the cause of anomalous results.[citation needed]

The Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor is a tabletop device in which fusion occurs. This fusion comes from high effective temperatures produced by electrostatic acceleration of ions. The device can be built inexpensively, but it too is unable to produce a net power output.

The Polywell is a concept for a tabletop device in which fusion occurs. The device is a non-thermodynamic equilibrium machine which uses electrostatic confinement to accelerate ions into a center where they fuse together.

Antimatter-initialized fusion uses small amounts of antimatter to trigger a tiny fusion explosion. This has been studied primarily in the context of making nuclear pulse propulsion feasible. This is not near becoming a practical power source, due to the cost of manufacturing antimatter alone.

Pyroelectric fusion was reported in April 2005 by a team at UCLA. The scientists used a pyroelectric crystal heated from −34 to 7°C (−30 to 45°F), combined with a tungsten needle to produce an electric field of about 25 gigavolts per meter to ionize and accelerate deuterium nuclei into an erbium deuteride target. Though the energy of the deuterium ions generated by the crystal has not been directly measured, the authors used 100 keV (a temperature of about 109 K) as an estimate in their modeling. At these energy levels, two deuterium nuclei can fuse together to produce a helium-3 nucleus, a 2.45 MeV neutron and bremsstrahlung. Although it makes a useful neutron generator, the apparatus is not intended for power generation since it requires far more energy than it produces.[11][12][13][14]

Hot fusion

In "standard" "hot" fusion, the fuel reaches tremendous temperature and pressure inside a fusion reactor or nuclear weapon.

The methods in the second group are examples of non-equilibrium systems, in which very high temperatures and pressures are produced in a relatively small region adjacent to material of much lower temperature. In his doctoral thesis for MIT, Todd Rider did a theoretical study of all quasineutral, isotropic, non-equilibrium fusion systems. He demonstrated that all such systems will leak energy at a rapid rate due to bremsstrahlung produced when electrons in the plasma hit other electrons or ions at a cooler temperature and suddenly decelerate. The problem is not as pronounced in a hot plasma because the range of temperatures, and thus the magnitude of the deceleration, is much lower. Note that Rider's work does not apply to non-neutral and/or anisotropic non-equilibrium plasmas.

Important reactions

Astrophysical reaction chains

The proton-proton chain dominates in stars the size of the Sun or smaller.

The CNO cycle dominates in stars heavier than the Sun.

The most important fusion process in nature is that which powers the stars. The net result is the fusion of four protons into one alpha particle, with the release of two positrons, two neutrinos (which changes two of the protons into neutrons), and energy, but several individual reactions are involved, depending on the mass of the star. For stars the size of the sun or smaller, the proton-proton chain dominates. In heavier stars, the CNO cycle is more important. Both types of processes are responsible for the creation of new elements as part of stellar nucleosynthesis.

At the temperatures and densities in stellar cores the rates of fusion reactions are notoriously slow. For example, at solar core temperature (T ≈ 15 MK) and density (160 g/cm³), the energy release rate is only 276 μW/cm³—about a quarter of the volumetric rate at which a resting human body generates heat. Thus, reproduction of stellar core conditions in a lab for nuclear fusion power production is completely impractical. Because nuclear reaction rates strongly depend on temperature (exp(−E/kT)), then in order to achieve reasonable rates of energy production in terrestrial fusion reactors 10–100 times higher temperatures (compared to stellar interiors) are required T ≈ 0.1–1.0 GK.

Criteria and candidates for terrestrial reactions

In man-made fusion, the primary fuel is not constrained to be protons and higher temperatures can be used, so reactions with larger cross-sections are chosen. This implies a lower Lawson criterion, and therefore less startup effort. Another concern is the production of neutrons, which activate the reactor structure radiologically, but also have the advantages of allowing volumetric extraction of the fusion energy and tritium breeding. Reactions that release no neutrons are referred to as aneutronic.

In order to be useful as a source of energy, a fusion reaction must satisfy several criteria. It must

  • be exothermic: This may be obvious, but it limits the reactants to the low Z (number of protons) side of the curve of binding energy. It also makes helium 4He the most common product because of its extraordinarily tight binding, although 3He and 3H also show up;
  • involve low Z nuclei: This is because the electrostatic repulsion must be overcome before the nuclei are close enough to fuse;
  • have two reactants: At anything less than stellar densities, three body collisions are too improbable. It should be noted that in inertial confinement, both stellar densities and temperatures are exceeded to compensate for the shortcomings of the third parameter of the Lawson criterion, ICF's very short confinement time;
  • have two or more products: This allows simultaneous conservation of energy and momentum without relying on the electromagnetic force;
  • conserve both protons and neutrons: The cross sections for the weak interaction are too small.

Few reactions meet these criteria. The following are those with the largest cross sections[citation needed]:

(1) 21D + 31T 42He ( 3.5 MeV ) + n0 ( 14.1 MeV )
(2i) 21D + 21D 31T ( 1.01 MeV ) + p+ ( 3.02 MeV ) 50%
(2ii) 32He ( 0.82 MeV ) + n0 ( 2.45 MeV ) 50%
(3) 21D + 32He 42He ( 3.6 MeV ) + p+ ( 14.7 MeV )
(4) 31T + 31T 42He + 2 n0 + 11.3 MeV
(5) 32He + 32He 42He + 2 p+ + 12.9 MeV
(6i) 32He + 31T 42He + p+ + n0 + 12.1 MeV 51%
(6ii) 42He ( 4.8 MeV ) + 21D ( 9.5 MeV ) 43%
(6iii) 42He ( 0.5 MeV ) + n0 ( 1.9 MeV ) + p+ ( 11.9 MeV ) 6%
(7i) 21D + 63Li 2 42He + 22.4 MeV
(7ii) 32He + 42He + n0 + 2.56 MeV
(7iii) 73Li + p+ + 5.0 MeV
(7iv) 74Be + n0 + 3.4 MeV
(8) p+ + 63Li 42He ( 1.7 MeV ) + 32He ( 2.3 MeV )
(9) 32He + 63Li 2 42He + p+ + 16.9 MeV
(10) p+ + 115B 3 42He + 8.7 MeV
Wpdms physics proton proton chain 1.svg
  • Stellar nucleosynthesis
  • Big Bang nucleosynthesis
  • Supernova nucleosynthesis
  • Cosmic ray spallation
Related topics
  • Astrophysics
  • Nuclear fusion
    • R-process
    • S-process
  • Nuclear fission


For reactions with two products, the energy is divided between them in inverse proportion to their masses, as shown. In most reactions with three products, the distribution of energy varies. For reactions that can result in more than one set of products, the branching ratios are given.

Some reaction candidates can be eliminated at once.[16] The D-6Li reaction has no advantage compared to p+-115B because it is roughly as difficult to burn but produces substantially more neutrons through 21D-21D side reactions. There is also a p+-73Li reaction, but the cross section is far too low, except possibly when Ti > 1 MeV, but at such high temperatures an endothermic, direct neutron-producing reaction also becomes very significant. Finally there is also a p+-94Be reaction, which is not only difficult to burn, but 94Be can be easily induced to split into two alpha particles and a neutron.

In addition to the fusion reactions, the following reactions with neutrons are important in order to "breed" tritium in "dry" fusion bombs and some proposed fusion reactors:

n0 + 63Li 31T + 42He
n0 + 73Li 31T + 42He + n0

To evaluate the usefulness of these reactions, in addition to the reactants, the products, and the energy released, one needs to know something about the cross section. Any given fusion device will have a maximum plasma pressure that it can sustain, and an economical device will always operate near this maximum. Given this pressure, the largest fusion output is obtained when the temperature is chosen so that <σv>/T² is a maximum. This is also the temperature at which the value of the triple product nTτ required for ignition is a minimum, since that required value is inversely proportional to <σv>/T² (see Lawson criterion). (A plasma is "ignited" if the fusion reactions produce enough power to maintain the temperature without external heating.) This optimum temperature and the value of <σv>/T² at that temperature is given for a few of these reactions in the following table.

fuel T [keV] <σv>/T² [m³/s/keV²]
21D-31T 13.6 1.24×10−24
21D-21D 15 1.28×10−26
21D-32He 58 2.24×10−26
p+-63Li 66 1.46×10−27
p+-115B 123 3.01×10−27

Note that many of the reactions form chains. For instance, a reactor fueled with 31T and 32He will create some 21D, which is then possible to use in the 21D-32He reaction if the energies are "right". An elegant idea is to combine the reactions (8) and (9). The 32He from reaction (8) can react with 63Li in reaction (9) before completely thermalizing. This produces an energetic proton which in turn undergoes reaction (8) before thermalizing. A detailed analysis shows that this idea will not really work well, but it is a good example of a case where the usual assumption of a Maxwellian plasma is not appropriate.

Neutronicity, confinement requirement, and power density

The only fusion reactions thus far produced by humans to achieve ignition are those which have been created in hydrogen bombs, the first of which, Ivy Mike, is shown here.

Any of the reactions above can in principle be the basis of fusion power production. In addition to the temperature and cross section discussed above, we must consider the total energy of the fusion products Efus, the energy of the charged fusion products Ech, and the atomic number Z of the non-hydrogenic reactant.

Specification of the 21D-21D reaction entails some difficulties, though. To begin with, one must average over the two branches (2) and (3). More difficult is to decide how to treat the 31T and 32He products. 31T burns so well in a deuterium plasma that it is almost impossible to extract from the plasma. The 21D-32He reaction is optimized at a much higher temperature, so the burnup at the optimum 21D-21D temperature may be low, so it seems reasonable to assume the 31T but not the 32He gets burned up and adds its energy to the net reaction. Thus we will count the 21D-21D fusion energy as Efus = (4.03+17.6+3.27)/2 = 12.5 MeV and the energy in charged particles as Ech = (4.03+3.5+0.82)/2 = 4.2 MeV.

Another unique aspect of the 21D-21D reaction is that there is only one reactant, which must be taken into account when calculating the reaction rate.

With this choice, we tabulate parameters for four of the most important reactions

fuel Z Efus [MeV] Ech [MeV] neutronicity
21D-31T 1 17.6 3.5 0.80
21D-21D 1 12.5 4.2 0.66
21D-32He 2 18.3 18.3 ~0.05
p+-115B 5 8.7 8.7 ~0.001

The last column is the neutronicity of the reaction, the fraction of the fusion energy released as neutrons. This is an important indicator of the magnitude of the problems associated with neutrons like radiation damage, biological shielding, remote handling, and safety. For the first two reactions it is calculated as (Efus-Ech)/Efus. For the last two reactions, where this calculation would give zero, the values quoted are rough estimates based on side reactions that produce neutrons in a plasma in thermal equilibrium.

Of course, the reactants should also be mixed in the optimal proportions. This is the case when each reactant ion plus its associated electrons accounts for half the pressure. Assuming that the total pressure is fixed, this means that density of the non-hydrogenic ion is smaller than that of the hydrogenic ion by a factor 2/(Z+1). Therefore the rate for these reactions is reduced by the same factor, on top of any differences in the values of <σv>/T². On the other hand, because the 21D-21D reaction has only one reactant, the rate is twice as high as if the fuel were divided between two hydrogenic species.

Thus there is a "penalty" of (2/(Z+1)) for non-hydrogenic fuels arising from the fact that they require more electrons, which take up pressure without participating in the fusion reaction. (It is usually a good assumption that the electron temperature will be nearly equal to the ion temperature. Some authors, however discuss the possibility that the electrons could be maintained substantially colder than the ions. In such a case, known as a "hot ion mode", the "penalty" would not apply.) There is at the same time a "bonus" of a factor 2 for 21D-21D because each ion can react with any of the other ions, not just a fraction of them.

We can now compare these reactions in the following table.

fuel <σv>/T² penalty/bonus reactivity Lawson criterion power density (W/m3/kPa2) relation of power density
21D-31T 1.24×10−24 1 1 1 34 1
21D-21D 1.28×10−26 2 48 30 0.5 68
21D-32He 2.24×10−26 2/3 83 16 0.43 80
p+-63Li 1.46×10−27 1/2 1700
0.005 6800
p+-115B 3.01×10−27 1/3 1240 500 0.014 2500

The maximum value of <σv>/T² is taken from a previous table. The "penalty/bonus" factor is that related to a non-hydrogenic reactant or a single-species reaction. The values in the column "reactivity" are found by dividing 1.24 × 10−24 by the product of the second and third columns. It indicates the factor by which the other reactions occur more slowly than the 21D-31T reaction under comparable conditions. The column "Lawson criterion" weights these results with Ech and gives an indication of how much more difficult it is to achieve ignition with these reactions, relative to the difficulty for the 21D-31T reaction. The last column is labeled "power density" and weights the practical reactivity with Efus. It indicates how much lower the fusion power density of the other reactions is compared to the 21D-31T reaction and can be considered a measure of the economic potential.

Bremsstrahlung losses in quasineutral, isotropic plasmas

The ions undergoing fusion in many systems will essentially never occur alone but will be mixed with electrons that in aggregate neutralize the ions' bulk electrical charge and form a plasma. The electrons will generally have a temperature comparable to or greater than that of the ions, so they will collide with the ions and emit x-ray radiation of 10-30 keV energy (Bremsstrahlung). The Sun and stars are opaque to x-rays, but essentially any terrestrial fusion reactor will be optically thin for x-rays of this energy range. X-rays are difficult to reflect but they are effectively absorbed (and converted into heat) in less than mm thickness of stainless steel (which is part of a reactor's shield). The ratio of fusion power produced to x-ray radiation lost to walls is an important figure of merit. This ratio is generally maximized at a much higher temperature than that which maximizes the power density (see the previous subsection). The following table shows the rough optimum temperature and the power ratio at that temperature for several reactions.

fuel Ti (keV) Pfusion/PBremsstrahlung
21D-31T 50 140
21D-21D 500 2.9
21D-32He 100 5.3
32He-32He 1000 0.72
p+-63Li 800 0.21
p+-115B 300 0.57

The actual ratios of fusion to Bremsstrahlung power will likely be significantly lower for several reasons. For one, the calculation assumes that the energy of the fusion products is transmitted completely to the fuel ions, which then lose energy to the electrons by collisions, which in turn lose energy by Bremsstrahlung. However because the fusion products move much faster than the fuel ions, they will give up a significant fraction of their energy directly to the electrons. Secondly, the plasma is assumed to be composed purely of fuel ions. In practice, there will be a significant proportion of impurity ions, which will lower the ratio. In particular, the fusion products themselves must remain in the plasma until they have given up their energy, and will remain some time after that in any proposed confinement scheme. Finally, all channels of energy loss other than Bremsstrahlung have been neglected. The last two factors are related. On theoretical and experimental grounds, particle and energy confinement seem to be closely related. In a confinement scheme that does a good job of retaining energy, fusion products will build up. If the fusion products are efficiently ejected, then energy confinement will be poor, too.

The temperatures maximizing the fusion power compared to the Bremsstrahlung are in every case higher than the temperature that maximizes the power density and minimizes the required value of the fusion triple product. This will not change the optimum operating point for 21D-31T very much because the Bremsstrahlung fraction is low, but it will push the other fuels into regimes where the power density relative to 21D-31T is even lower and the required confinement even more difficult to achieve. For 21D-21D and 21D-32He, Bremsstrahlung losses will be a serious, possibly prohibitive problem. For 32He-32He, p+-63Li and p+-115B the Bremsstrahlung losses appear to make a fusion reactor using these fuels with a quasineutral, anisotropic plasma impossible. Some ways out of this dilemma are considered—and rejected—in Fundamental limitations on plasma fusion systems not in thermodynamic equilibrium by Todd Rider.[18] This limitation does not apply to non-neutral and anisotropic plasmas; however, these have their own challenges to contend with.