Scientists have a dusty new way to create a star on Earth

Scientists have a dusty new way to create a star on Earth
(Representative image) Human hand holding a plasma ballUnsplash

  • A new study by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) claims that boron powder could be the key to unlocking the holy grail of limitless energy.
  • In contrast on its gaseous counterpart, diborane, boron powder is less explosive and doesn’t send physicists running from the room.
  • Scientists also claim that it maximises the efficiency of nuclear reactions by eliminating tungsten.
The Sun looks like an innocent light bulb in the sky, from Earth. In reality, it’s a gaseous giant with powerful nuclear explosions at its heart — the holy grail of clean, limitless energy. So far, no nuclear fusion reactor on the planet has been able to match the power of the Sun.

But that may longer be true. Scientists from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory ( PPPL) think that they’ve cracked the code with a simple solution — boron powder.

Using boron powder could finally present a way to create the heat required for electricity without producing greenhouse gases or long-term radioactive waste.

Scientists have a dusty new way to create a star on Earth
Nuclear power plantUnsplash

Projects that have been trying to recreate nuclear fusion here on Earth, use ring-shaped fusion facilities called tokamaks. The only issue is that the main ingredient, plasma, is never completely free of impurities. The impurities make the reaction less efficient, which means less energy.

Adding boron powder, on the other hand, not only makes the process more efficient — but it also makes it safer and more sustainable.

Making nuclear reactions more efficient

Scientists have been trying to crack the formula for nuclear fusion since the days of World War II — when Edward Teller created the hydrogen bomb for Germany. And, they’ve been using plasma to do it.

Plasma — a cloud of protons, neutrons and electrons — is commonly known as the fourth state of matter. It’s like gas because the atoms aren’t in constant contact with each other, but it can flow like a liquid and also contain solid lumps where atoms are sticking together.

Scientists have a dusty new way to create a star on Earth
(Representative image) Pink plasma ballUnsplash

The current method of utilising plasma for nuclear reactions leaves behind an element called tungsten. It makes the reactions less efficient because it cools the plasma down whereas the aim to keep it piping hot — ten times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

With boron powder, tungsten is no longer a by-product according to the study published in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Nuclear Fusion. This allows scientists to maximize the fusion reaction, which in turn maximises the heat needed to create electricity.

Nuclear explosions that are ‘safe’

Boron’s gaseous form, diborane, is already being used as a part of nuclear fusion. But, it’s extremely explosive.

“Diborane gas is explosive, so everybody has to leave the building housing the tokamak during the process,” said the lead author of the study, Robert Lunsford.
Using boron, on the other hand, is much safer. Where diborane gas is explosive and toxic, boron powder is inert.

Scientists have a dusty new way to create a star on Earth
Radiation warning signs along the road in Idaho, USUnsplash

An unlimited, uninterrupted supply of energy

Everything diborane gas needs to be added to the plasma, the machine has to be stopped so that physicists can at least enter the room. That means the energy creation process is repeatedly interrupted.

Since boron powder isn’t explosive — it may be able to overcome that obstacle as well. According to Lunsford, it can be added to the plasma while the machine is running.

“This is one way to get to a steady-state fusion machine. You can add more Boron without having to completely shut down the machine,” he said.

This doesn’t mean that unlimited clean energy is going to come into play tomorrow but it does open up a new realm of possibility. There’s still a lot more to be determined — like where the material goes after it has been injected and are there any side-effects that haven’t been detected yet.

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