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Fusion
CHAPTER 32 | MEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS
Figure 32.14 A food irradiation plant has a conveyor system to pass items through an intense radiation field behind thick shielding walls. The
pool of water for safe storage when not in use. Exposure times of up to an hour expose food to doses up to
γ
source is lowered into a deep
4
10 Gy .
Owing to the fact that food irradiation seeks to destroy organisms such as insects and bacteria, much larger doses than those fatal to humans must
be applied. Generally, the simpler the organism, the more radiation it can tolerate. (Cancer cells are a partial exception, because they are rapidly
reproducing and, thus, more sensitive.) Current licensing allows up to 1000 Gy to be applied to fresh fruits and vegetables, called a low dose in food
irradiation. Such a dose is enough to prevent or reduce the growth of many microorganisms, but about 10,000 Gy is needed to kill salmonella, and
even more is needed to kill fungi. Doses greater than 10,000 Gy are considered to be high doses in food irradiation and product sterilization.
The effectiveness of food irradiation varies with the type of food. Spices and many fruits and vegetables have dramatically longer shelf lives. These
also show no degradation in taste and no loss of food value or vitamins. If not for the mandatory labeling, such foods subjected to low-level irradiation
(up to 1000 Gy) could not be distinguished from untreated foods in quality. However, some foods actually spoil faster after irradiation, particularly
those with high water content like lettuce and peaches. Others, such as milk, are given a noticeably unpleasant taste. High-level irradiation produces
significant and chemically measurable changes in foods. It produces about a 15% loss of nutrients and a 25% loss of vitamins, as well as some
change in taste. Such losses are similar to those that occur in ordinary freezing and cooking.
How does food irradiation work? Ionization produces a random assortment of broken molecules and ions, some with unstable oxygen- or hydrogencontaining molecules known as free radicals. These undergo rapid chemical reactions, producing perhaps four or five thousand different compounds
called radiolytic products, some of which make cell function impossible by breaking cell membranes, fracturing DNA, and so on. How safe is the
food afterward? Critics argue that the radiolytic products present a lasting hazard, perhaps being carcinogenic. However, the safety of irradiated food
is not known precisely. We do know that low-level food irradiation produces no compounds in amounts that can be measured chemically. This is not
surprising, since trace amounts of several thousand compounds may be created. We also know that there have been no observable negative shortterm effects on consumers. Long-term effects may show up if large number of people consume large quantities of irradiated food, but no effects have
appeared due to the small amounts of irradiated food that are consumed regularly. The case for safety is supported by testing of animal diets that
were irradiated; no transmitted genetic effects have been observed. Food irradiation (at least up to a million rad) has been endorsed by the World
Health Organization and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. Finally, the hazard to consumers, if it exists, must be weighed against the
benefits in food production and preservation. It must also be weighed against the very real hazards of existing insecticides and food preservatives.
32.5 Fusion
While basking in the warmth of the summer sun, a student reads of the latest breakthrough in achieving sustained thermonuclear power and vaguely
recalls hearing about the cold fusion controversy. The three are connected. The Sun’s energy is produced by nuclear fusion (see Figure 32.15).
Thermonuclear power is the name given to the use of controlled nuclear fusion as an energy source. While research in the area of thermonuclear
power is progressing, high temperatures and containment difficulties remain. The cold fusion controversy centered around unsubstantiated claims of
practical fusion power at room temperatures.
Figure 32.15 The Sun’s energy is produced by nuclear fusion. (credit: Spiralz)
Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two nuclei are combined, or fused, to form a larger nucleus. We know that all nuclei have less mass than the
sum of the masses of the protons and neutrons that form them. The missing mass times c 2 equals the binding energy of the nucleus—the greater
the binding energy, the greater the missing mass. We also know that BE / A , the binding energy per nucleon, is greater for medium-mass nuclei and
has a maximum at Fe (iron). This means that if two low-mass nuclei can be fused together to form a larger nucleus, energy can be released. The
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larger nucleus has a greater binding energy and less mass per nucleon than the two that combined. Thus mass is destroyed in the fusion reaction,
and energy is released (see Figure 32.16). On average, fusion of low-mass nuclei releases energy, but the details depend on the actual nuclides
involved.
Figure 32.16 Fusion of light nuclei to form medium-mass nuclei destroys mass, because
nucleon, and so mass is converted to energy and released in these fusion reactions.
BE / A
is greater for the product nuclei. The larger
BE / A
is, the less mass per
The major obstruction to fusion is the Coulomb repulsion between nuclei. Since the attractive nuclear force that can fuse nuclei together is short
ranged, the repulsion of like positive charges must be overcome to get nuclei close enough to induce fusion. Figure 32.17 shows an approximate
graph of the potential energy between two nuclei as a function of the distance between their centers. The graph is analogous to a hill with a well in its
center. A ball rolled from the right must have enough kinetic energy to get over the hump before it falls into the deeper well with a net gain in energy.
So it is with fusion. If the nuclei are given enough kinetic energy to overcome the electric potential energy due to repulsion, then they can combine,
release energy, and fall into a deep well. One way to accomplish this is to heat fusion fuel to high temperatures so that the kinetic energy of thermal
motion is sufficient to get the nuclei together.
Figure 32.17 Potential energy between two light nuclei graphed as a function of distance between them. If the nuclei have enough kinetic energy to get over the Coulomb
repulsion hump, they combine, release energy, and drop into a deep attractive well. Tunneling through the barrier is important in practice. The greater the kinetic energy and
the higher the particles get up the barrier (or the lower the barrier), the more likely the tunneling.
8
You might think that, in the core of our Sun, nuclei are coming into contact and fusing. However, in fact, temperatures on the order of 10 K are
needed to actually get the nuclei in contact, exceeding the core temperature of the Sun. Quantum mechanical tunneling is what makes fusion in the
Sun possible, and tunneling is an important process in most other practical applications of fusion, too. Since the probability of tunneling is extremely
sensitive to barrier height and width, increasing the temperature greatly increases the rate of fusion. The closer reactants get to one another, the
more likely they are to fuse (see Figure 32.18). Thus most fusion in the Sun and other stars takes place at their centers, where temperatures are
highest. Moreover, high temperature is needed for thermonuclear power to be a practical source of energy.
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CHAPTER 32 | MEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS
Figure 32.18 (a) Two nuclei heading toward each other slow down, then stop, and then fly away without touching or fusing. (b) At higher energies, the two nuclei approach
close enough for fusion via tunneling. The probability of tunneling increases as they approach, but they do not have to touch for the reaction to occur.
The Sun produces energy by fusing protons or hydrogen nuclei 1 H (by far the Sun’s most abundant nuclide) into helium nuclei 4 He . The principal
sequence of fusion reactions forms what is called the proton-proton cycle:
1
where
H + 1H → 2 H + e + + v e
(0.42 MeV)
1
H + 2H → 3 He + γ
3
He + 3He → 4 He + 1H + 1H
(32.13)
(5.49 MeV)
(32.14)
(12.86 MeV)
(32.15)
e + stands for a positron and v e is an electron neutrino. (The energy in parentheses is released by the reaction.) Note that the first two
reactions must occur twice for the third to be possible, so that the cycle consumes six protons ( 1 H ) but gives back two. Furthermore, the two
positrons produced will find two electrons and annihilate to form four more
γ rays, for a total of six. The overall effect of the cycle is thus
2e − + 4 1 H → 4 He + 2v e + 6γ
(26.7 MeV)
(32.16)
where the 26.7 MeV includes the annihilation energy of the positrons and electrons and is distributed among all the reaction products. The solar
interior is dense, and the reactions occur deep in the Sun where temperatures are highest. It takes about 32,000 years for the energy to diffuse to the
surface and radiate away. However, the neutrinos escape the Sun in less than two seconds, carrying their energy with them, because they interact so
weakly that the Sun is transparent to them. Negative feedback in the Sun acts as a thermostat to regulate the overall energy output. For instance, if
the interior of the Sun becomes hotter than normal, the reaction rate increases, producing energy that expands the interior. This cools it and lowers
the reaction rate. Conversely, if the interior becomes too cool, it contracts, increasing the temperature and reaction rate (see Figure 32.19). Stars like
the Sun are stable for billions of years, until a significant fraction of their hydrogen has been depleted. What happens then is discussed in
Introduction to Frontiers of Physics .
Figure 32.19 Nuclear fusion in the Sun converts hydrogen nuclei into helium; fusion occurs primarily at the boundary of the helium core, where temperature is highest and
sufficient hydrogen remains. Energy released diffuses slowly to the surface, with the exception of neutrinos, which escape immediately. Energy production remains stable
because of negative feedback effects.
Theories of the proton-proton cycle (and other energy-producing cycles in stars) were pioneered by the German-born, American physicist Hans Bethe
(1906–2005), starting in 1938. He was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize in physics for this work, and he has made many other contributions to physics
and society. Neutrinos produced in these cycles escape so readily that they provide us an excellent means to test these theories and study stellar
interiors. Detectors have been constructed and operated for more than four decades now to measure solar neutrinos (see Figure 32.20). Although
solar neutrinos are detected and neutrinos were observed from Supernova 1987A (Figure 32.21), too few solar neutrinos were observed to be
consistent with predictions of solar energy production. After many years, this solar neutrino problem was resolved with a blend of theory and
experiment that showed that the neutrino does indeed have mass. It was also found that there are three types of neutrinos, each associated with a
different type of nuclear decay.
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Figure 32.20 This array of photomultiplier tubes is part of the large solar neutrino detector at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. In these experiments, the
neutrinos interact with heavy water and produce flashes of light, which are detected by the photomultiplier tubes. In spite of its size and the huge flux of neutrinos that strike it,
very few are detected each day since they interact so weakly. This, of course, is the same reason they escape the Sun so readily. (credit: Fred Ullrich)
Figure 32.21 Supernovas are the source of elements heavier than iron. Energy released powers nucleosynthesis. Spectroscopic analysis of the ring of material ejected by
Supernova 1987A observable in the southern hemisphere, shows evidence of heavy elements. The study of this supernova also provided indications that neutrinos might have
mass. (credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Challis)
The proton-proton cycle is not a practical source of energy on Earth, in spite of the great abundance of hydrogen ( 1 H ). The reaction
1
H + 1H → 2 H + e + + v e has a very low probability of occurring. (This is why our Sun will last for about ten billion years.) However, a number of
other fusion reactions are easier to induce. Among them are:
2
H + 2H → 3 H + 1H
(4.03 MeV)
(32.17)
2
H + 2H → 3 He + n
(3.27 MeV)
(32.18)
2
H + 3H → 4 He + n
(17.59 MeV)
(32.19)
(23.85 MeV).
(32.20)
2
H + 2H → 4 He + γ
Deuterium ( 2 H ) is about 0.015% of natural hydrogen, so there is an immense amount of it in sea water alone. In addition to an abundance of
deuterium fuel, these fusion reactions produce large energies per reaction (in parentheses), but they do not produce much radioactive waste. Tritium
3
3
( H ) is radioactive, but it is consumed as a fuel (the reaction 2 H + H → 4 He + n ), and the neutrons and γ s can be shielded. The neutrons
produced can also be used to create more energy and fuel in reactions like
n + 1H → 2 H + γ
(20.68 MeV)
(32.21)
n + 1H → 2 H + γ
(2.22 MeV).
(32.22)
and
Note that these last two reactions, and 2 H + 2H
→ 4 He + γ , put most of their energy output into the γ ray, and such energy is difficult to utilize.
The three keys to practical fusion energy generation are to achieve the temperatures necessary to make the reactions likely, to raise the density of
the fuel, and to confine it long enough to produce large amounts of energy. These three factors—temperature, density, and time—complement one
another, and so a deficiency in one can be compensated for by the others. Ignition is defined to occur when the reactions produce enough energy to
be self-sustaining after external energy input is cut off. This goal, which must be reached before commercial plants can be a reality, has not been
achieved. Another milestone, called break-even, occurs when the fusion power produced equals the heating power input. Break-even has nearly
been reached and gives hope that ignition and commercial plants may become a reality in a few decades.
Two techniques have shown considerable promise. The first of these is called magnetic confinement and uses the property that charged particles
have difficulty crossing magnetic field lines. The tokamak, shown in Figure 32.22, has shown particular promise. The tokamak’s toroidal coil confines
charged particles into a circular path with a helical twist due to the circulating ions themselves. In 1995, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at
Princeton in the US achieved world-record plasma temperatures as high as 500 million degrees Celsius. This facility operated between 1982 and
1997. A joint international effort is underway in France to build a tokamak-type reactor that will be the stepping stone to commercial power. ITER, as it
is called, will be a full-scale device that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy. It will generate 500 MW of power for extended periods of
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CHAPTER 32 | MEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS
time and will achieve break-even conditions. It will study plasmas in conditions similar to those expected in a fusion power plant. Completion is
scheduled for 2018.
Figure 32.22 (a) Artist’s rendition of ITER, a tokamak-type fusion reactor being built in southern France. It is hoped that this gigantic machine will reach the break-even point.
Completion is scheduled for 2018. (credit: Stephan Mosel, Flickr)
The second promising technique aims multiple lasers at tiny fuel pellets filled with a mixture of deuterium and tritium. Huge power input heats the fuel,
evaporating the confining pellet and crushing the fuel to high density with the expanding hot plasma produced. This technique is called inertial
confinement, because the fuel’s inertia prevents it from escaping before significant fusion can take place. Higher densities have been reached than
with tokamaks, but with smaller confinement times. In 2009, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (CA) completed a laser fusion device with 192
ultraviolet laser beams that are focused upon a D-T pellet (see Figure 32.23).
Figure 32.23 National Ignition Facility (CA). This image shows a laser bay where 192 laser beams will focus onto a small D-T target, producing fusion. (credit: Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, and the Department of Energy)
Example 32.2 Calculating Energy and Power from Fusion
(a) Calculate the energy released by the fusion of a 1.00-kg mixture of deuterium and tritium, which produces helium. There are equal numbers
of deuterium and tritium nuclei in the mixture.
(b) If this takes place continuously over a period of a year, what is the average power output?
Strategy
3
According to 2 H + H
→ 4 He + n , the energy per reaction is 17.59 MeV. To find the total energy released, we must find the number of
deuterium and tritium atoms in a kilogram. Deuterium has an atomic mass of about 2 and tritium has an atomic mass of about 3, for a total of
about 5 g per mole of reactants or about 200 mol in 1.00 kg. To get a more precise figure, we will use the atomic masses from Appendix A. The
power output is best expressed in watts, and so the energy output needs to be calculated in joules and then divided by the number of seconds in
a year.
Solution for (a)
3
The atomic mass of deuterium ( 2 H ) is 2.014102 u, while that of tritium ( H ) is 3.016049 u, for a total of 5.032151 u per reaction. So a mole of
reactants has a mass of 5.03 g, and in 1.00 kg there are
(1000 g) / (5.03 g/mol)=198.8 mol of reactants . The number of reactions that take
place is therefore
(198.8 mol)⎛⎝6.02×10 23 mol −1⎞⎠ = 1.20×10 26 reactions.
(32.23)
The total energy output is the number of reactions times the energy per reaction:
E = ⎛⎝1.20×10 26 reactions⎞⎠(17.59 MeV/reaction)⎛⎝1.602×10 −13 J/MeV⎞⎠
= 3.37×10 14 J.
Solution for (b)
(32.24)
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