Laser-Heated Nanowires Produce Micro-Scale Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion, the process that powers our sun, happens when nuclear reactions between light elements produce heavier ones. It’s also happening – at a smaller scale – in a Colorado State University (CSU) laboratory. Using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, CSU scientists and collaborators have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab. They have achieved record-setting efficiency for the generation of neutronschargeless sub-atomic particles resulting from the fusion process. Their work is detailed in a paper published in Nature Communications, and is led by Jorge Rocca, University Distinguished Professor in electrical and computer engineering and physics. The paper’s first author is Alden Curtis, a CSU graduate student.

Laser-driven controlled fusion experiments are typically done with multi-hundred-million-dollar lasers housed in stadium-sized buildings. Such experiments are usually geared toward harnessing fusion for clean energy applications.

In contrast, Rocca’s team of students, research scientists and collaborators work with an ultra-fast, high-powered tabletop laser they built from scratch. They use their fast, pulsed laser to irradiate a target of invisible wires and instantly create extremely hot, dense plasmas – with conditions approaching those inside the sun. These plasmas drive fusion reactions, giving off helium and flashes of energetic neutrons. In their Nature Communications experiment, the team produced a record number of neutrons per unit of laser energy – about 500 times better than experiments that use conventional flat targets from the same material.


Hydrogen Economy Closer

Washington State University (WSU) researchers have found a way to more efficiently generate hydrogen from water — an important key to making clean energy more viable. Using inexpensive nickel and iron, the researchers developed a very simple, five-minute method to create large amounts of a high-quality catalyst required for the chemical reaction to split water.

Energy conversion and storage is a key to the clean energy economy. Because solar and wind sources produce power only intermittently, there is a critical need for ways to store and save the electricity they create. One of the most promising ideas for storing renewable energy is to use the excess electricity generated from renewables to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen has myriad uses in industry and could be used to power hydrogen fuel-cell carsIndustries have not widely used the water splitting process, however, because of the prohibitive cost of the precious metal catalysts that are required – usually platinum or ruthenium. Many of the methods to split water also require too much energy, or the required catalyst materials break down too quickly.

In their work, the researchers, led by professor Yuehe Lin in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, used two abundantly available and cheap metals to create a porous nanofoam that worked better than most catalysts that currently are used, including those made from the precious metals. The catalyst they created looks like a tiny sponge. With its unique atomic structure and many exposed surfaces throughout the material, the nanofoam can catalyze the important reaction with less energy than other catalysts. The catalyst showed very little loss in activity in a 12-hour stability test.

We took a very simple approach that could be used easily in large-scale production,” said Shaofang Fu, a WSU Ph.D. student who synthesized the catalyst and did most of the activity testing. “The advanced materials characterization facility at the national laboratories provided the deep understanding of the composition and structures of the catalysts,” comments Junhua Song, another WSU Ph.D. student who worked on the catalyst characterization.

The findings are described in the journal Nano Energy.


In 2025 Humanity Could Benefit From A Major New Source Of Clean Power

An international project to generate energy from nuclear fusion has reached a key milestone, with half of the infrastructure required now built. Bernard Bigot, the director-general of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter), the main facility of which is based in southern France, said the completion of half of the project meant the effort was back on track, after a series of difficulties. This would mean that power could be produced from the experimental site from 2025.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms combine to form a new atom and a neutron. The atoms are fired into a plasma where extreme temperatures overcome their repulsion and forces them together. The fusion releases about four times the energy produced when an atom is split in conventional nuclear fission

The effort to bring nuclear fusion power closer to operation is backed by some of the world’s biggest developed and emerging economies, including the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. However, a review of the long-running project in 2013 found problems with its running and organisation. This led to the appointment of Bigot, and a reorganisation that subsequent reviews have broadly endorsed.

Fusion power is one of the most sought-after technological goals in the pursuit of clean energy. Nuclear fusion is the natural phenomenon that powers the sun, converting hydrogen into helium atoms through a process that occurs at extreme temperatures.

Replicating that process on earth at sufficient scale could unleash more energy than is likely to be needed by humanity, but the problem is creating the extreme conditions necessary for such reactions to occur, harnessing the resulting energy in a useful way, and controlling the reactions once they have been induced.

The Iter project aims to use hydrogen fusion, controlled by large superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy which would drive turbines – in a similar way to the coal-fired and gas-fired power stations of today – that would produce electricity. This would produce power free from carbon emissions, and potentially at low cost, if the technology can be made to work at a large scale.

For instance, according to Iter scientists, an amount of hydrogen the size of a pineapple could be used to produce as much energy as 10,000 tonnes of coal.


How To Convert 90% Of Water Into Hydrogen

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) have significantly boosted the efficiency of two techniques, for splitting water to create hydrogen gas and splitting carbon dioxide (CO2) to create carbon monoxide (CO). The products are valuable feedstock for clean energy and chemical manufacturing applications. The water-splitting process successfully converts 90 percent of water into hydrogen gas, while the CO2-splitting process converts more than 98 percent of the CO2 into CO. In addition, the process also uses the resulting oxygen to convert methane into syngas, which is itself a feedstock used to make fuels and other products.

These advances are made possible by materials that we specifically designed to have the desired thermodynamic properties for each process,” says Fanxing Li, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State who is corresponding author of two papers on the work. “These properties had not been reported before unless you used rare earth materials.”

For the CO2-splitting process, researchers developed a nanocomposite of strontium ferrite dispersed in a chemically inert matrix of calcium oxide or manganese oxide. As CO2 is run over a packed bed of particles composed of the nanocomposite, the nanocomposite material splits the CO2 and captures one of the oxygen atoms. This reduces the CO2, leaving only CO behind.

Previous CO2 conversion techniques have not been very efficient, converting well below 90 percent of the CO2 into CO,” Li says. “We reached conversion rates as high as 99 percent. “And CO is valuable because it can be used to make a variety of chemical products, including everything from polymers to acetic acid,” Li adds.

Meanwhile, the oxygen captured during the CO2-splitting process is combined with methane and converted into syngas using solar energy.


Nuclear Energy: Fusion Power A Step Closer

The UK’s newest fusion reactor, ST40, was switched on last week, and has already managed to achieve ‘first plasma‘ – successfully generating a scorching blob of electrically-charged gas (or plasma) within its core.

The aim is for the tokamak reactor to heat plasma up to 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit) by 2018 – seven times hotter than the centre of the Sun. That’s the ‘fusion’ threshold, at which hydrogen atoms can begin to fuse into helium, unleashing limitless, clean energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion is the process that fuels our Sun, and if we can figure out a way to achieve the same thing here on Earth, it would allow us to tap into an unlimited supply of clean energy that produces next to no carbon emissions.Unlike nuclear fission, which is achieved in today’s nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion involves fusing atoms together, not splitting them apart, and it requires little more than salt and water, and primarily produces helium as a waste product.


Today is an important day for fusion energy development in the UK, and the world,” said David Kingham, CEO of Tokamak Energy, the company behind ST40. “We are unveiling the first world-class controlled fusion device to have been designed, built and operated by a private venture. The ST40 is a machine that will show fusion temperatures – 100 million degrees – are possible in compact, cost-effective reactors. This will allow fusion power to be achieved in years, not decades.

The next step is for a full set of those magnetic coils to be installed and tested within ST40, and later this year, Tokamak Energy will use them to aim to generate plasma at temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius (27 million degrees Fahrenheit).

In 2018, the team hopes to achieve the fusion threshold of 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit), and the ultimate goal is to provide clean fusion power to the UK grid by 2030.


Cost-effective Hydrogen Production From Water

Groundbreaking research at Griffith University (Australia) is leading the way in clean energy, with the use of carbon as a way to deliver energy using hydrogen. Professor Xiangdong Yao and his team from Griffith’s Queensland Micro- and Nanotechnology Centre have successfully managed to use the element to produce hydrogen from water as a replacement for the much more costly platinum.

Tucson fuel cellTucson fom Hyundai: A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car

Hydrogen production through an electrochemical process is at the heart of key renewable energy technologies including water splitting and hydrogen fuel cells,” says Professor Yao. “Despite tremendous efforts, exploring cheap, efficient and durable electrocatalysts for hydrogen evolution still remains a great challenge. “Platinum is the most active and stable electrocatalyst for this purpose, however its low abundance and consequent high cost severely limits its large-scale commercial applications. “We have now developed this carbon-based catalyst, which only contains a very small amount of nickel and can completely replace the platinum for efficient and cost-effective hydrogen production from water.

In our research, we synthesize a nickel–carbon-based catalyst, from carbonization of metal-organic frameworks, to replace currently best-known platinum-based materials for electrocatalytic hydrogen evolution“, he adds. “This nickel-carbon-based catalyst can be activated to obtain isolated nickel atoms on the graphitic carbon support when applying electrochemical potential, exhibiting highly efficient hydrogen evolution performance and impressive durability.”

Proponents of a hydrogen economy advocate hydrogen as a potential fuel for motive power including cars and boats and on-board auxiliary power, stationary power generation (e.g., for the energy needs of buildings), and as an energy storage medium (e.g., for interconversion from excess electric power generated off-peak).


How to Produce Hydrogen From Water At Low Cost

Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered — or catalyzed — by a nanoparticle made of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. The results of the research will be published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Schaak explained that the purpose of this nanoparticle is to help produce hydrogen from water — a process that is important for many energy-production technologies including fuel cells and solar cells. “Water is an ideal fuel, because it is cheap and abundant, but we need to be able to extract hydrogen from it,” Schaak said. Hydrogen has a high energy density and is a great energy carrier, Schaak explained, but it requires energy to produce. To make its production practical, scientists have been hunting for a way to trigger the required chemical reactions with an inexpensive catalyst. Platinum works, but it is expensive and relatively rare, so Schaak and his team have been searching for alternative materials.

hydrogen-electric carThere were some predictions that nickel phosphide might be a good candidate, and we already had been working with nickel phosphide nanoparticles for several years,” Schaak said. “It turns out that nanoparticles of nickel phosphide are indeed active for producing hydrogen and are comparable to the best known alternatives to platinum.”


Convert Hydrogen Into Electricity And Store It

Researching for clean energy generation,  scientists at Harvard University have demonstrated  that  a solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that converts hydrogen into electricity,  can also store electrochemical energy like a battery. This fuel cell can continue to produce power for a short time after its fuel has run out.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, would really benefit from this,” says lead author Quentin Van Overmeere, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “When it’s impossible to refuel in the field, an extra boost of stored energy could extend the device’s life span significantly.” The finding, which appeared online in the journal Nano Letters, will be most important for small-scale, portable energy applications, where a very compact and lightweight power supply is essential and the fuel supply may be interrupted.