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article image'Breakthrough' in nuclear fusion produced by melting quarks

By Karen Graham     Nov 5, 2017 in Technology
Imagine discovering a new kind of fusion reaction, so powerful that physicists nearly decided to bury it rather than let the world know because they feared it could be used as a "planet-killer bomb."
Researchers at Tel Aviv University and the University of Chicago have shown that a huge amount of energy, with a reaction potential to release eight times as much energy as the individual fusion reactions in an H-bomb, can be produced by melting elementary particles called quarks.
The research was carried out by TAU physics Prof. Marek Karliner, in cooperation with Prof. Jonathan L. Rosner of the University of Chicago. In their research, they discovered the massive energy potential of a particle known as a bottom quark, one of six different types of quark. When two are fused together, they form a larger subatomic particle, another particle called a nucleon and one major eruption of energy.
What are quarks?
Before going any further into the "breakthrough" discovery concerning nuclear fusion, let's find out about quarks. Basically, most of the matter we see around us is made from protons and neutrons, which are composed of quarks. Quarks are one type of matter particle. There are six types of quarks but they are usually talked about in terms of three pairs - up/down, charm/strange, and top/bottom.
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Besides their strange, but silly names, quarks also have the unusual characteristic of having a "fractional" electrical discharge. Think back to basic chemistry, where protons and electrons have integer charges of +1 and -1. Quarks join together to form composite particles called hadrons and the most stable of these are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei.
Six of the particles in the Standard Model are quarks (shown in purple). Each of the first three col...
Six of the particles in the Standard Model are quarks (shown in purple). Each of the first three columns forms a generation of matter.
Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of Energy, Particle Data Group
Luckily, It's a one-trick pony
Scientists know that breaking apart the different parts that make up the nucleus of an atom or fusing them together with others will produce nuclear fission or fusion, and in turn produce enormous amounts of energy. And, as all of us know, this energy can be harnessed for use in nuclear power plants or used to produce thermonuclear weapons.
However, the above discussed nuclear reactions involve an interplay between protons and neutrons. But the type of reaction Karliner and his colleague Jonathan Rosner observed involved quarks.
Measurements of the type of energy released showed it was tremendously powerful - producing 138 megaelectronvolts, or to put it in perspective, eight times more powerful than a single fusion event in the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, and there are millions of fusion events in the bomb.
A quark-level analogue of nuclear fusion.
A quark-level analogue of nuclear fusion.
This release of so much energy is what scared the dickens out of the two researchers, so much so that they were ready to call a halt to the work, debating whether or not to publish their discovery, fearful the discovery could lead to a planet-killing bomb.
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Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University and a co-researcher on the project says, “I must admit that when I first realized that such a reaction was possible, I was scared but, luckily, it is a one-trick pony.” Why is the reaction a one-trick pony? Karliner explains that when a single reaction is not part of a chain of reaction, the quark collision isn’t very dangerous at all.
There is one added assurance. When using bottom quarks, a chain reaction wouldn't be possible anyway, because, by their nature, bottom quarks exist for just one picosecond, and that is a very short one-trillionth of a second, before they turn into "up" quarks. “If I thought for a microsecond that this had any military applications, I would not have published it,” Karliner said.
Light emitted by highly ionised iron atoms indicates a temperature of nearly 16 000 000 degrees Cels...
Light emitted by highly ionised iron atoms indicates a temperature of nearly 16,000,000 degrees Celsius on the sun
So, what is the point of this research? This is the first theoretical proof that subatomic particles can fuse together to release massive amounts of energy. And as the research paper says, "At present, however, the very short lifetimes of the heavy bottom and charm quarks preclude any practical applications of such reactions."
This very interesting study, Quark-level analogue of nuclear fusion with doubly heavy baryons, was published in the journal Nature on November 1, 017.
More about Nuclear fusion, Breakthrough, subatomic particles, bottom quarks, onetrick pony