NASA’s cold fusion tech could put a nuclear reactor in every home, car, and plane

By Sebastian Anthony on February 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

The cold fusion dream lives on: NASA is developing cheap, clean, low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology that could eventually see cars, planes, and homes powered by small, safe nuclear reactors.

When we think of nuclear power, there are usually just two options: fission and fusion. Fission, which creates huge amounts of heat by splitting larger atoms into smaller atoms, is what currently powers every nuclear reactor on Earth. Fusion is the opposite, creating vast amounts of energy by fusing atoms of hydrogen together, but we’re still many years away from large-scale, commercial fusion reactors. (See: 500MW from half a gram of hydrogen: The hunt for fusion power heats up.)

LENR is absolutely nothing like either fission or fusion. Where fission and fusion are underpinned by strong nuclear force, LENR harnesses power from weak nuclear force — but capturing this energy is difficult. So far, NASA’s best effort involves a nickel lattice and hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions are sucked into the nickel lattice, and then the lattice is oscillated at a very high frequency (between 5 and 30 terahertz). This oscillation excites the nickel’s electrons, which are forced into the hydrogen ions (protons), forming slow-moving neutrons. The nickel immediately absorbs these neutrons, making it unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.

The key to LENR’s cleanliness and safety seems to be the slow-moving neutrons. Whereas fission creates fast neutrons (neutrons with energies over 1 megaelectron volt), LENR utilizes neutrons with an energy below 1eV — less than a millionth of the energy of a fast neutron. Whereas fast neutrons create one hell of a mess, LENR’s slow neutrons don’t generate ionizing radiation or radioactive waste. It is because of this sedate gentility that LENR lends itself very well to vehicular and at-home nuclear reactors that provide both heat and electricity.

Read more: NASA’s cold fusion tech could put a nuclear reactor in every home, car, and plane | ExtremeTech.

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