Chemists are preparing to play an important but often unheralded role in determining the success of one of the largest and most important scientific experiments in history — next year's initial attempts at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) to produce the world's first controlled nuclear fusion reaction. If successful in taming the energy source of the sun, stars, and of the hydrogen bomb, scientists could develop a limitless new source of producing electricity for homes, factories, and businesses.
The experiment could also lead to new insights into the origins of the universe. A special two-day symposium addressing this topic, "Nuclear Diagnostics in Fusion Energy Research," will be presented Aug. 19 and 20 during the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Scientists have been trying to achieve controlled nuclear fusion for almost 50 years. In 2010, researchers at the NIF at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California will focus the energy of 192 giant laser beams onto a pea-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel. These lasers represent the world's highest-energy laser system. The scientists hope that their effort will ignite, or fuse, the hydrogen atoms' nuclei to trigger the high energy reaction.
"Chemists will definitely play a role in determining whether nuclear fusion reactions have occurred during this NIF experiment, which is key to determining whether the experiment is a success," says Dawn Shaughnessy, Ph.D., a scientist with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"The idea is that the lasers will fuse hydrogen particles together, producing neutrons," says Shaughnessy, one of many scientists who plan to analyze materials produced by the reaction. "We'll collect and measure the materials produced from the ignition and hopefully be able to determine how many neutrons were made. More neutrons mean that more fusion has occurred."
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