Laser-heated nanowires produce micro-scale nuclear fusion with record efficiency

Using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, CSU scientists and collaborators have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab. They have achieved record-setting efficiency for the generation of neutrons – chargeless sub-atomic particles resulting from the fusion process.

Above – The target chamber (front) and ultra-high density laser (back) used in the micro-scale fusion experiments at CSU. Credit: Advanced Beam Laboratory

Laser-driven controlled fusion experiments are typically done with multi-hundred-million-dollar lasers housed in stadium-sized buildings. Such experiments are usually geared toward harnessing fusion for clean energy applications.

In contrast, Rocca’s team of students, research scientists and collaborators work with an ultra-fast, high-powered tabletop laser they built from scratch. They use their fast, pulsed laser to irradiate a target of invisible wires and instantly create extremely hot, dense plasmas – with conditions approaching those inside the sun. These plasmas drive fusion reactions, giving off helium and flashes of energetic neutrons.

Nature Communications – Micro-scale fusion in dense relativistic nanowire array plasmas

Irradiating nanowires

In their experiment, the team produced a record number of neutrons per unit of laser energy – about 500 times better than experiments that use conventional flat targets from the same material. Their laser’s target was an array of nanowires made out of a material called deuterated polyethylene. The material is similar to the widely used polyethylene plastic, but its common hydrogen atoms are substituted by deuterium, a heavier kind of hydrogen atom.

The efforts were supported by intensive computer simulations conducted at the University of Dusseldorf (Germany), and at CSU.

Making fusion neutrons efficiently, at a small scale, could lead to advances in neutron-based imaging, and neutron probes to gain insight on the structure and properties of materials. The results also contribute to understanding interactions of ultra-intense laser light with matter.

The paper is titled “Micro-scale fusion in dense relativistic nanowire array plasmas.” The research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and by Mission Support Test Services, LLC.

Nuclear fusion is regularly created in spherical plasma compressions driven by multi-kilojoule pulses from the world’s largest lasers. Here we demonstrate a dense fusion environment created by irradiating arrays of deuterated nanostructures with joule-level pulses from a compact ultrafast laser. The irradiation of ordered deuterated polyethylene nanowires arrays with femtosecond pulses of relativistic intensity creates ultra-high energy density plasmas in which deuterons (D) are accelerated up to MeV energies, efficiently driving D–D fusion reactions and ultrafast neutron bursts. We measure up to 2 million fusion neutrons per joule, an increase of about 500 times with respect to flat solid targets, a record yield for joule-level lasers. Moreover, in accordance with simulation predictions, we observe a rapid increase in neutron yield with laser pulse energy. The results will impact nuclear science and high energy density research and can lead to bright ultrafast quasi-monoenergetic neutron point sources for imaging and materials studies.

They realized a near-solid-density plasma regime in which deuterons from aligned nanostructures are accelerated up to MeV energies. The volumetric heating of aligned deuterated polyethylene nanowire arrays irradiated at relativistic intensity is shown to produce ultrashort neutron pulses with a ~500 times larger number of D–D neutrons than a deuterated flat solid target. A total of 2 million neutrons per joule was generated, the largest D–D fusion neutron yield reported to date for plasmas generated by laser pulse energies in the 1 J range. A further increase of the irradiation intensity is predicted to shift the deuteron energy distribution to significantly higher energies, which can be expected to lead into a further increase in D–D fusion reactions. This volumetrically heated dense fusion environment that can be created at a high repetition rates with compact lasers is of interest for high energy density science and nuclear science. The approach can also lead to the efficient generation of ultrafast pulses of quasi-monoenergetic neutrons from a point source for time-resolved material studies, ultrafast neutron radiography, and spectroscopy, and for high-energy science applications such as neutrino detector development.