Fusion reactions are inhibited by the electrical repulsive force that acts between two positively charged nuclei. For fusion to occur, the two nuclei must approach each other at high speed to overcome the electrical repulsion and attain a sufficiently small separation (less than one-trillionth of a centimeter) that the short-range strong nuclear force dominates. For the production of useful amounts of energy, a large number of nuclei must under go fusion: that is to say, a gas of fusing nuclei must be produced. In a gas at extremely high temperature, the average nucleus contains sufficient kinetic energy to undergo fusion. Such a medium can be produced by heating an ordinary gas of neutral atoms beyond the temperature at which electrons are knocked out of the atoms. The result is an ionized gas consisting of free negative electrons and positive nuclei. This gas constitutes a plasma.
Plasma, in physics, is an electrically conducting medium in which there are roughly equal numbers of positively and negatively charged particles, produced when the atoms in a gas become ionized. It is sometimes referred to as the fourth state of matter, distinct from the solid, liquid, and gaseous states. When energy is continuously applied to a solid, it first melts, then it vaporizes, and finally electrons are removed from some of the neutral gas atoms and molecules to yield a mixture of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons, while overall neutral charge density is maintained. When a significant portion of the gas has been ionized, its properties will be altered so substantially that little resemblance to solids, liquids, and gases remains. A plasma is unique in the way in which it interacts with itself with electric and magnetic fields, and with its environment. A plasma can be thought of as a collection of ions, electrons, neutral atoms and molecules, an photons in which some atoms are being ionized simultaneously with other electrons recombining with ions to form neutral particles, while photons are continuously being produced and absorbed.
Scientists have estimated that more than 99 percent of the matter in the universe exists in the plasma state. All of the observed stars, including the Sun, consist of plasma, as do interstellar and interplanetary media and the outer atmospheres of the planets. Although most terrestrial matter exists in a solid, liquid or gaseous state, plasma is found in lightning bolts and auroras, in gaseous discharge lamps (neon lights), and in the crystal structure of metallic solids. Plasmas are currently being studied as an affordable source of clean electric power from thermonuclear fusion reactions.
The scientific problem for fusion is thus the problem of producing and confining a hot, dense plasma. The core of a fusion reactor would consist of burning plasma. Fusion would occur between the nuclei, with electrons present only to maintain macroscopic charge neutrality.
Stars, including the Sun, consist of plasma that generates energy by fusion reactions. In these “natural fusion reactors” the reacting, or burning, plasma is confirmed by its own gravity. It is not possible to assemble on Earth a plasma sufficiently massive to be gravitationally confined. The hydrogen bomb is an example of fusion reactions produced in an uncontrolled, unconfined manner in which the energy density is so high that the energy release is explosive. By contrast, the use of fusion for peaceful energy generating requires control and confinement of a plasma at high temperature and is often called controlled thermonuclear fusion.
In the development of fusion power technology, demonstration of “ energy breakeven” is taken to signify the scientific feasibility of fusion. At breakeven, the fusion power produced by a plasma is equal to the power input to maintain the plasma. This requires a plasma that is hot, dense, and well confined. The temperature required, about 100 million Kelvins, is several times that of the Sun. The product of the density and energy confinement time of the plasma (the time it takes the plasma to lose its energy if not replaced) must exceed a critical value.
There are two main approaches to controlled fusion – namely, magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. Magnetic confinement of plasmas is the most highly developed approach to controlled fusion. The hot plasma is contained by magnetic forces exerted on the charged particles. A large part of the problem of fusion has