Aneutronic fusion is any form of fusion power in which very little of the energy released is carried by neutrons. While the lowest-threshold nuclear fusion reactions release up to 80% of their energy in the form of neutrons, aneutronic reactions release energy in the form of charged particles, typically protons or alpha particles. Successful aneutronic fusion would greatly reduce problems associated with neutron radiation such as damaging ionizing radiation, neutron activation, and requirements for biological shielding, remote handling and safety.
Since it is simpler to convert the energy of charged particles into electrical power than it is to convert energy from uncharged particles, an aneutronic reaction would be attractive for power systems. Some proponents see a potential for dramatic cost reductions by converting energy directly to electricity, as well as in eliminating the radiation from neutrons, which are difficult to shield against. However, the conditions required to harness aneutronic fusion are much more extreme than those required for deuterium-tritium fusion being investigated in ITER or Wendelstein 7-X.
Several nuclear reactions produce no neutrons on any of their branches. Those with the largest cross sections are these:
|Deuterium - Helium-3||2D||+||3He||→||4He||+||1p||+ 18.3 MeV|
|Deuterium - Lithium-6||2D||+||6Li||→||2||4He||+ 22.4 MeV|
|Proton - Lithium-6||1p||+||6Li||→||4He||+||3He||+ 4.0 MeV|
|Helium-3 – Lithium-6||3He||+||6Li||→||2||4He||+||1p||+ 16.9 MeV|
|Helium-3 - Helium-3||3He||+||3He||→||4He||+||2 1p||+ 12.86 MeV|
|Proton – Lithium-7||1p||+||7Li||→||2||4He||+ 17.2 MeV|
|Proton – Boron-11||1p||+||11B||→||3||4He||+ 8.7 MeV|
|Proton – Nitrogen||1p||+||15N||→||12C||+||4He||+ 5.0 MeV|
Fusion reactions can be categorized by 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. The State of New Jersey has defined an aneutronic reaction as one in which neutrons carry no more than 1% of the total released energy, although many papers on aneutronic fusion include reactions that do not meet this criterion.
The difficulty of a fusion reaction is characterized by the energy required for the nuclei to overcome their mutual electrostatic repulsion, the so-called Coulomb barrier. This is a function of the total electrical charge of the fuel ions, and is thus minimized for those ions with the lowest number of protons. Countering the electrostatic repulsion is the nuclear force, which increases with the number of nucleons.
In most fusion reactor concepts, the energy needed to overcome the Coulomb barrier is provided by collisions with other fuel ions. In a thermalized fluid like a plasma, the temperature corresponds to an energy spectrum according to the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. Gases in this state will have a population of particles with very high energy even if the bulk of the gas has an average energy much lower. Fusion devices rely on this distribution; even at bulk temperatures far below the Coulomb barrier energy, the energy released by the reactions is so great that capturing some of that back in the fuel will cause the population of high-energy ions within it to be high enough to keep the reaction going.
Thus, steady operation of the reactor is based on a balance between the rate that energy is added to the fuel by the fusion reactions and the rate energy is lost to the surroundings through a wide variety of processes. This concept is best expressed as the fusion triple product, the product of the temperature, density and "confinement time", the amount of time energy remains in the fuel before escaping to the environment. The product of temperature and density gives the reaction rate for any given fuel. The rate of reaction is proportional to the nuclear cross section ("σ").
Any given fusion device has a maximum plasma pressure it can sustain, and an economical device would 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.
Because the Coulomb barrier is a product of the number of nucleons in the fuel ions, varieties of heavy hydrogen, deuterium and tritium (D-T), give the fuel with the lowest total Coulomb barrier. All other potential fuels will have higher Coulomb barrier, and thus require higher operational temperatures. Additionally, D-T fuels have the highest nuclear cross-sections, which means the reaction rates will be higher than any other fuel. This means that D-T fusion is the easiest to achieve, and one can compare the potential of other fuels by comparing it to the D-T reaction. The table below shows the ignition temperature and cross-section for three of the candidate aneutronic reactions, compared to D-T:
As can be seen, the easiest to ignite of the aneutronic reactions, D-3He, has an ignition temperature over four times as high as that of the D-T reaction, and correspondingly lower cross-sections, while the p-11B reaction is nearly ten times more difficult to ignite.
Many challenges remain prior to the commercialization of aneutronic processes.
The large majority of fusion research has gone toward D-T fusion, which is the easiest to achieve. Although the first experiments in the field started in 1939, and serious efforts have been continual since the early 1950s, as of 2020[update] we are still many years away from achieving breakeven using even this fuel. Fusion experiments typically use Deuterium-deuterium fusion (D-D) because deuterium is cheap and easy to handle, being non-radioactive. Performing experiments on D-T fusion is more difficult because tritium is expensive and radioactive, with additional environmental protection and safety measures.
The combination of lower cross-section and higher loss rates in D-He3 fusion is offset to a degree by the reactants being mainly charged particles that deposit their energy back in the plasma. This combination of offsetting features demands an operating temperature about four times that of a D-T system. However, due to the high loss rates and consequent rapid cycling of energy, the confinement time of a working reactor needs to be about fifty times higher than D-T, and the energy density about 80 times higher. This requires significant advances in plasma physics.
Proton–boron fusion requires ion energies, and thus plasma temperatures, almost ten times higher than those for D-T fusion. For any given density of the reacting nuclei, the reaction rate for proton-boron achieves its peak rate at around 600 keV (6.6 billion degrees Celsius or 6.6 gigakelvins) while D-T has a peak at around 66 keV (765 million degrees Celsius, or 0.765 gigakelvin). For pressure-limited confinement concepts, optimum operating temperatures are about 5 times lower, but the ratio is still roughly ten-to-one.
The peak reaction rate of p–11B is only one third that for D-T, requiring better plasma confinement. Confinement is usually characterized by the time τ the energy must be retained so that the fusion power released exceeds the power required to heat the plasma. Various requirements can be derived, most commonly the product of the density, nτ, and the product with the pressure nTτ, both of which are called the Lawson criterion. The nτ required for p–11B is 45 times higher than that for D-T. The nTτ required is 500 times higher. (See also neutronicity, confinement requirement, and power density.) Since the confinement properties of conventional fusion approaches, such as the tokamak and laser pellet fusion are marginal, most aneutronic proposals use radically different confinement concepts.
In most fusion plasmas, bremsstrahlung radiation is a major energy loss channel. (See also bremsstrahlung losses in quasineutral, isotropic plasmas.) For the p–11B reaction, some calculations indicate that the bremsstrahlung power will be at least 1.74 times larger than the fusion power. The corresponding ratio for the 3He-3He reaction is only slightly more favorable at 1.39. This is not applicable to non-neutral plasmas, and different in anisotropic plasmas.
In conventional reactor designs, whether based on magnetic or inertial confinement, the bremsstrahlung can easily escape the plasma and is considered a pure energy loss term. The outlook would be more favorable if the plasma could reabsorb the radiation. Absorption occurs primarily via Thomson scattering on the electrons, which has a total cross section of σT = 6.65×10−29 m². In a 50–50 D-T mixture this corresponds to a range of 6.3 g/cm². This is considerably higher than the Lawson criterion of ρR > 1 g/cm², which is already difficult to attain, but might be achievable in inertial confinement systems.
In megatesla magnetic fields a quantum mechanical effect might suppress energy transfer from the ions to the electrons. According to one calculation, bremsstrahlung losses could be reduced to half the fusion power or less. In a strong magnetic field cyclotron radiation is even larger than the bremsstrahlung. In a megatesla field, an electron would lose its energy to cyclotron radiation in a few picoseconds if the radiation could escape. However, in a sufficiently dense plasma (ne > 2.5×1030 m−3, a density greater than that of a solid), the cyclotron frequency is less than twice the plasma frequency. In this well-known case, the cyclotron radiation is trapped inside the plasmoid and cannot escape, except from a very thin surface layer.
While megatesla fields have not yet been achieved, fields of 0.3 megatesla have been produced with high intensity lasers, and fields of 0.02–0.04 megatesla have been observed with the dense plasma focus device.
At much higher densities (ne > 6.7×1034 m−3), the electrons will be Fermi degenerate, which suppresses bremsstrahlung losses, both directly and by reducing energy transfer from the ions to the electrons. If necessary conditions can be attained, net energy production from p–11B or D–3He fuel may be possible. The probability of a feasible reactor based solely on this effect remains low, however, because the gain is predicted to be less than 20, while more than 200 is usually considered to be necessary.
In every published fusion power plant design, the part of the plant that produces the fusion reactions is much more expensive than the part that converts the nuclear power to electricity. In that case, as indeed in most power systems, power density is an important characteristic. Doubling power density at least halves the cost of electricity. In addition, the confinement time required depends on the power density.
It is, however, not trivial to compare the power density produced by different fusion fuel cycles. The case most favorable to p–11B relative to D-T fuel is a (hypothetical) confinement device that only works well at ion temperatures above about 400 keV, in which the reaction rate parameter <σv> is equal for the two fuels, and that runs with low electron temperature. p–11B does not require as long a confinement time because the energy of its charged products is two and a half times higher than that for D-T. However, relaxing these assumptions, for example by considering hot electrons, by allowing the D-T reaction to run at a lower temperature or by including the energy of the neutrons in the calculation shifts the power density advantage to D-T.
The most common assumption is to compare power densities at the same pressure, choosing the ion temperature for each reaction to maximize power density, and with the electron temperature equal to the ion temperature. Although confinement schemes can be and sometimes are limited by other factors, most well-investigated schemes have some kind of pressure limit. Under these assumptions, the power density for p–11B is about 2,100 times smaller than that for D-T. Using cold electrons lowers the ratio to about 700. These numbers are another indication that aneutronic fusion power is not possible with mainline confinement concepts.
- Lawrenceville Plasma Physics has published initial results and outlined a theory and experimental program for aneutronic fusion with the Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) The private effort was initially funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Support for other DPF aneutronic fusion investigations came from the Air Force Research Laboratory.
- Polywell fusion was pioneered by the late Robert W. Bussard and funded by the US Navy, uses inertial electrostatic confinement. Research continues at the company he founded, EMC2.
- Tri Alpha Energy, Inc. is pursuing aneutronic fusion in the Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor (CBFR) based on electromagnetic heating, acceleration, collision and merging of two compact toroids in Field-Reversed Configuration at supersonic speeds.
- The Z-machine at Sandia National Laboratory, a z-pinch device, can produce ion energies of interest to hydrogen–boron reactions, up to 300 keV. Non-equilibrium plasmas usually have an electron temperature higher than their ion temperature, but the plasma in the Z machine has a special, reverted non-equilibrium state, in which the ion temperature is 100 times higher than electron temperature. These data represent a new research field, and indicate that Bremsstrahlung losses could be in fact lower than previously expected in such a design.
- HB11 Energy, an Australian spin-off company created in September 2017. It develops a dual chirped pulse amplification laser driven proton-boron technique with an avalanche reaction offering a billion time increased fusion yield improvement compared to other previous inertial confinement fusion systems. It holds the patents of UNSW's theoretical physicist Heinrich Hora.
None of these efforts has yet tested its device with hydrogen–boron fuel, so the anticipated performance is based on extrapolating from theory, experimental results with other fuels and from simulations.
- A picosecond pulse of a 10-terawatt laser produced hydrogen–boron aneutronic fusions for a Russian team in 2005. However, the number of the resulting α particles (around 103 per laser pulse) was low.
- A French research team fused protons and boron-11 nuclei using a laser-accelerated proton beam and high-intensity laser pulse. In October 2013 they reported an estimated 80 million fusion reactions during a 1.5 nanosecond laser pulse.
- In 2016, a team at the Shanghai Chinese Academy of Sciences produced a laser pulse of 5.3 petawatts with the Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility (SULF) and would be able to reach 10 petawatts with the same equipment. The team is now building a 100-petawatt laser, the Station of Extreme Light (SEL) planned to be operational by 2023. It would be able to produce antiparticles (electron-positron pairs) out of the vacuum. A similar European project also exists for the same timeframe, a 200-PW laser known as the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI). Although these two projects do not currently involve aneutronic fusion research, they show how aneutronic nuclear energy could benefit from the race toward exawatt (1018 W) and even zettawatt (1021 W) lasers.
- In 2021, a Russian team reported experimental results in a miniature device with electrodynamic (oscillatory) plasma confinement. It used a ∼1–2 J nanosecond vacuum discharge with a virtual cathode. Its field accelerates ions to ∼100–300 keV under oscillating ions' collisions. α particles of about 5×104/4π (∼10α particles/ns) were obtained within total 4μs of the voltage applications.
The 3He–D reaction has been studied as an alternative fusion plasma because it is the fuel with the lowest energy threshold for aneutronic fusion reaction.
The p–6Li, 3He–7Li, and 3He–3He reaction rates are not particularly high in a thermal plasma. When treated as a chain, however, they offer the possibility of enhanced reactivity due to a non-thermal distribution. The product 3He from the p–6Li reaction could participate in the second reaction before thermalizing, and the product p from 3He–7Li could participate in the former before thermalizing. Detailed analyses, however, do not show sufficient reactivity enhancement to overcome the inherently low cross section.
The 3He reaction suffers from a helium-3 availability problem. Helium-3 occurs in only minuscule amounts naturally on Earth, so it would either have to be bred from neutron reactions (counteracting the potential advantage of aneutronic fusion) or mined from extraterrestrial sources.
The amount of helium-3 fuel needed for large-scale applications can also be described in terms of total consumption: according to the US Energy Information Administration, "Electricity consumption by 107 million U.S. households in 2001 totaled 1,140 billion kW·h" (1.14×1015 W·h). Again assuming 100% conversion efficiency, 6.7 tonnes per year of helium-3 would be required for that segment of the energy demand of the United States, 15 to 20 tonnes per year given a more realistic end-to-end conversion efficiency. Extracting that amount of pure helium-3 would entail processing 2 billion tonnes of lunar material per year, even assuming a recovery rate of 100%.
Although the deuterium reactions (deuterium + helium-3 and deuterium + lithium-6) do not in themselves release neutrons, in a fusion reactor the plasma would also produce D-D side reactions that result in reaction product of helium-3 plus a neutron. Although neutron production can be minimized by running a plasma reaction hot and deuterium-lean, the fraction of energy released as neutrons is probably several percent, so that these fuel cycles, although neutron-poor, do not meet the 1% threshold. See Helium-3. The D-3He reaction also suffers from the 3He fuel availability problem, as discussed above.
Fusion reactions involving lithium are well studied due to the use of lithium for breeding tritium in thermonuclear weapons. They are intermediate in ignition difficulty between the reactions involving lower atomic-number species, H and He, and the 11B reaction.
Many studies of aneutronic fusion concentrate on the reaction p–11B, which uses relatively easily available fuel. The fusion of the boron nucleus with a proton produces energetic alpha particles (helium nuclei).
Since the ignition of the p–11B reaction is much more difficult than the D-T reaction studied in most fusion programs, alternatives to the usual tokamak fusion reactors are usually proposed, such as laser inertial confinement fusion. One proposed method uses one laser to create a boron-11 plasma and another to create a stream of protons that smash into the plasma. The proton beam produces a tenfold increase of boron fusion because protons and boron nuclei collide directly. Earlier methods used a solid boron target, "protected" by its electrons, which reduced the fusion rate. Experiments suggest that a petawatt-scale laser pulse could launch an ‘avalanche’ fusion reaction, although this remains controversial. The plasma lasts about one nanosecond, requiring the picosecond pulse of protons to be precisely synchronized. Unlike conventional methods, this approach does not require a magnetically confined plasma. The proton beam is preceded by an electron beam, generated by the same laser, that pushes away electrons in the boron plasma, allowing the protons more of a chance to collide with the boron nuclei and fuse.
Calculations show that at least 0.1% of the reactions in a thermal p–11B plasma produce neutrons, and the energy of these neutrons accounts for less than 0.2% of the total energy released.
These neutrons come primarily from the reaction:
- 11B + α → 14N + n + 157 keV
The reaction itself produces only 157 keV, but the neutron carries a large fraction of the alpha energy, close to Efusion/3 = 2.9 MeV. Another significant source of neutrons is:
- 11B + p → 11C + n − 2.8 MeV.
These neutrons are less energetic, with an energy comparable to the fuel temperature. In addition, 11C itself is radioactive, but quickly decays to 11B with a half life of only 20 minutes.
Since these reactions involve the reactants and products of the primary fusion reaction, it would be difficult to further lower the neutron production by a significant fraction. A clever magnetic confinement scheme could in principle suppress the first reaction by extracting the alphas as soon as they are created, but then their energy would not be available to keep the plasma hot. The second reaction could in principle be suppressed relative to the desired fusion by removing the high energy tail of the ion distribution, but this would probably be prohibited by the power required to prevent the distribution from thermalizing.
with a branching probability relative to the primary fusion reaction of about 10−4.
The hydrogen must be isotopically pure and the influx of impurities into the plasma must be controlled to prevent neutron-producing side reactions such as:
- 11B + d → 12C + n + 13.7 MeV
- d + d → 3He + n + 3.27 MeV
The shielding design reduces the occupational dose of both neutron and gamma radiation to a negligible level. The primary components would be water to moderate the fast neutrons, boron to absorb the moderated neutrons and metal to absorb X-rays. The total thickness is estimated to be about one meter, mostly water.
Aneutronic fusion produces energy in the form of charged particles instead of neutrons. This means that energy from aneutronic fusion could be captured using direct conversion instead of the steam cycle. Direct conversion techniques can either be inductive, based on changes in magnetic fields, electrostatic, based on pitting charged particles against an electric field, or photoelectric, in which light energy is captured. In a pulsed mode.
Electrostatic direct conversion uses the motion of charged particles to create voltage. This voltage drives electricity in a wire. This becomes electrical power, the reverse of most phenomena that use a voltage to put a particle in motion. Direct energy conversion does the opposite, using particle motion to produce a voltage. It has been described as a linear accelerator running backwards. An early supporter of this method was Richard F. Post at Lawrence Livermore. He proposed to capture the kinetic energy of charged particles as they were exhausted from a fusion reactor and convert this into voltage to drive current. Post helped develop the theoretical underpinnings of direct conversion, later demonstrated by Barr and Moir. They demonstrated a 48 percent energy capture efficiency on the Tandem Mirror Experiment in 1981.
Aneutronic fusion loses much of its energy as light. This energy results from the acceleration and deceleration of charged particles. These speed changes can be caused by Bremsstrahlung radiation or cyclotron radiation or synchrotron radiation or electric field interactions. The radiation can be estimated using the Larmor formula and comes in the X-ray, IR, UV and visible spectra. Some of the energy radiated as X-rays may be converted directly to electricity. Because of the photoelectric effect, X-rays passing through an array of conducting foils transfer some of their energy to electrons, which can then be captured electrostatically. Since X-rays can go through far greater material thickness than electrons, many hundreds or thousands of layers are needed to absorb them.
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- Heindler and Kernbichler, Proc. 5th Intl. Conf. on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems, 1989, pp. 177–82. Even though 0.1% is a small fraction, the dose rate is still high enough to require very good shielding, as illustrated by the following calculation. Assume we have a very small reactor producing 30 kW of total fusion power (a full-scale power reactor might produce 100,000 times more than this) and 30 W in the form of neutrons. If there is no significant shielding, a worker in the next room, 10 m away, might intercept (0.5 m2)/(4 pi (10 m)2) = 4×10−4 of this power, i.e., 0.012 W. With 70 kg body mass and the definition 1 gray = 1 J/kg, we find a dose rate of 0.00017 Gy/s. Using a quality factor of 20 for fast neutrons, this is equivalent to 3.4 millisieverts. The maximum yearly occupational dose of 50 mSv will be reached in 15 s, the fatal (LD50) dose of 5 Sv will be reached in half an hour. If very effective precautions are not taken, the neutrons would also activate the structure so that remote maintenance and radioactive waste disposal would be necessary.
- W. Kernbichler, R. Feldbacher, M. Heindler. "Parametric Analysis of p–11B as Advanced Reactor Fuel" in Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion Research (Proc. 10th Int. Conf., London, 1984) IAEA-CN-44/I-I-6. Vol. 3 (IAEA, Vienna, 1987).
- As with the neutron dose, shielding is essential with this level of gamma radiation. The neutron calculation in the previous note would apply if the production rate is decreased a factor of ten and the quality factor is reduced from 20 to 1. Without shielding, the occupational dose from a small (30 kW) reactor would still be reached in about an hour.
- El Guebaly, Laial, A., Shielding design options and impact on reactor size and cost for the advanced fuel reactor Aploo, Proceedings- Symposium on Fusion Engineering, v.1, 1989, pp.388–391. This design refers to D–He3, which actually produces more neutrons than p–11B fuel.
- Miley, G.H., et al., Conceptual design for a B-3He IEC Pilot plant, Proceedings—Symposium on Fusion Engineering, v. 1, 1993, pp. 161–164; L.J. Perkins et al., Novel Fusion energy Conversion Methods, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research, A271, 1988, pp. 188–96
- Moir, Ralph W. "Direct Energy Conversion in Fusion Reactors." Energy Technology Handbook 5 (1977): 150-54. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.
- "Mirror Systems: Fuel Cycles, Loss Reduction and Energy Recovery" R.F. Post, BNES nuclear Fusion Reactor Conference at Culham Labs, September 1969
- "Experimental Results from a beam Direct Converter at 100 kV" W. L. Barr, R. W. Moir and G Hamilton, December 3, 1981, Journal of Fusion Energy Vol 2, No. 2, 1982
- Quimby, D.C., High Thermal Efficiency X-ray energy conversion scheme for advanced fusion reactors, ASTM Special technical Publication, v.2, 1977, pp. 1161–1165
- Focus Fusion Society
- Proton-boron Fusion Prototype
- Aneutronic fusion in a degenerate plasma
- Lasers trigger cleaner fusion (email@example.com, 26 August 2005)
- Observation of neutronless fusion reactions in picosecond laser plasmas (Physical Review E 72, 2005)
- New Opportunities for Fusion in the 21st Century – Advanced Fuels, G.L. Kulcinski and J.F.Santarius, 14th Topical Meeting on the Technology of Fusion Energy, Oct 15–19, 2000,