'Eerie-blue glow' seen with nuclear fusion for the first time

The company's deuterium-tritium fusion operation displayed a blue glow, which could be seen with the naked eye.
Ameya Paleja
Screenshot of the fusion chamber emitting a blue glow
Screenshot of the fusion chamber emitting a blue glow

SHINE Technologies 

Janesville, Wisconsin-based nuclear fusion company SHINE Technologies has obtained visible proof of its reaction at work, visible radiation produced as a byproduct, a press release stated. The company claims this is the first instance when this has been achieved for nuclear fusion.

With the world looking for cleaner ways to meet its energy demands, nuclear power is gaining favor once again as a low-carbon source of energy. Companies are also focused on harnessing energy from nuclear fusion instead, which does not raise concerns about nuclear waste.

Challenges for nuclear fusion are still aplenty as researchers look for ways to contain the plasma used for generating energy as well as obtaining higher yields than the energy put into the fusion reaction. SHINE has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to nuclear fusion as it looks to apply the technology in industrial and medical applications on its way to tackling the problem of generating energy.

Visible proof of fusion

SHINE's approach to achieving the holy grail of nuclear fusion includes using the systems for smaller applications, such as inspecting industrial components. Earlier in April, the company began offering this as a service for aerospace and defense applications.

The target chamber of the fusion system is submerged under water at the company's main campus and it was here that the team observed a blue glow when the reaction was in progress. Nuclear scientists refer to this glow as Cherenkov radiation in honor of the Nobel laureate Pavel Cherenkov, who was the first to demonstrate and explain this glow.

When particles travel faster than light

Cherenkov radiation is observed when particles move faster than the speed of light in a specific medium like water. This might sound fundamentally wrong since nothing we know travels faster than light in a vacuum. However, light slows down in water, traveling at about 75 percent of its normal speed, while other particles continue to move at higher speeds.

These particles disturb the equilibrium of atoms of the medium, which then release photons to regain it, a shock wave of sorts similar to a sonic boom when objects travel faster than sound. These photons have high frequencies and low wavelengths and are perceived as blue by the human eye.

In the case of nuclear fusion, the glow is created after a hydrogen atom absorbs a neutron and emits a high-energy gamma ray, which then strikes an electron and accelerates it nearly to the speed of light.

Historically, fusion reactions have been detected with sophisticated instruments. However, on this occasion, there was visible proof. "At a billion fusions per second, you might have measurable Cherenkov radiation but not visible amounts," said Gerald Kulcinski, a professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the press release. "The Cherenkov radiation effect produced here was bright enough to be visible, which means there’s a lot of fusion happening, about 50 trillion fusions per second."

“Fusion has long captured the imagination of scientists and the public," said Greg Piefer, founder and CEO of SHINE. "To be able to create visual evidence of fusion is just really cool.”

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