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Coming in out of the cold: nuclear fusion, for real

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For the last few years, mentioning cold fusion around scientists (myself included) has been a little like mentioning Bigfoot or UFO sightings.

After the 1989 announcement of fusion in a bottle, so to speak, and the subsequent retraction, the whole idea of cold fusion seemed a bit beyond the pale. But that's all about to change.

A very reputable, very careful group of scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (Brian Naranjo, Jim Gimzewski, Seth Putterman) has initiated a fusion reaction using a laboratory device that's not much bigger than a breadbox, and works at roughly room temperature. This time, it looks like the real thing. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed the scientists' institution.]

Before going into their specific experiment, it's probably a good idea to define exactly what nuclear fusion is, and why we're so interested in understanding the process. This also gives me an excuse to talk about how things work deep inside the nuclei of atoms, a topic near and dear to most astronomers (more on that later).

Simply put, nuclear fusion means ramming protons and neutrons together so hard that they stick, and form a single, larger nucleus. When this happens with small nuclei (like hydrogen, which has only one proton or helium, which has two), you get a lot of energy out of the reaction. This specific reaction, fusing two hydrogen nuclei together to get helium, famously powers our sun (good), as well as hydrogen bombs (bad).

Fusion is a tremendous source of energy; the reason we're not using it to meet our everyday energy needs is that it's very hard to get a fusion reaction going. The reason is simple: protons don't want to get close to other protons.

Do you remember learning about electricity in high school? I sure do - I dreaded it whenever that topic came around. I had a series of well-meaning science teachers that thought it would be fun for everyone to hold hands and feel a mild electric shock pass their arms. Every time my fists clenched and jerked and I had nothing consciously do with it, my stomach turned.


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