A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part I

I’m not gonna lie: nuclear fusion is a complex conundrum, and I will readily admit that I do not fully understand it. But, it’s an important scientific and historical concept nonetheless, and one deserving of at least a few minutes of your reading time. Follow along as we breeze all too quickly through the history of nuclear fusion research.

The Nineteen Hundred & Twenties

In 1920, English chemist and physicist Francis William “Big Frank” Aston discovered that four hydrogen atoms had a heavier total mass equivalent than the total mass of one helium atom. This, of course, meant that net energy can be released by combining hydrogen atoms to form helium. This discovery was also mankind’s first look into the chemical mechanism by which stars produce energy in such massive quantities.

Throughout the decade, English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Stanley “Big Art” Eddington championed his own hypothesis that the proton-proton chain reaction* was the primary “engine” of the sun.

The Nineteen Hundred & Thirties

Things stayed pretty quiet until 1939, when German physicist and future Nobel Prize winner (in physics, natch) Hans Bethe verified a theory that showed that beta decay* and quantum tunneling* in the sun’s core could potentially convert protons into neutrons. This reaction, of course, produces deuterium rather than a simple diproton, and deuterium, as we all know, fuses with other reactions for increased energy output.

The Nineteen Hundred & Forties

Thanks to World War II, the Manhattan Project became the world’s biggest nuclear fusion project in 1942. We all know how that ended.

Pesky monkeys!

Pesky monkeys!

The UK Atomic Energy Authority registered the world’s first patent for a fusion reactor in 1946. Invented by English physicist and future Nobel Laurate in physics Sir George Paget “Big George” Thomson and British crystallographer Moses “Big Moses” Blackman, it was the first detailed examination of the Z-pinch concept.*

In 1947, two team of scientists in the United Kingdom performed a series of small experiments in nuclear fusion, expanding the size and scope of their experiments as they went along. Later experiments were inspired in part by the Huemul Project undertaken by German expat scientist Ronald “Big Ron” Richter in Argentina in 1949.

The Early Nineteen Hundred & Fifties

The first successful manmade fusion device—the boosted fission weapon, which doesn’t sound like something you should worry about at all—was first tested in 1951. This miniature nuclear bomb (again, don’t worry about it, I’m sure it’s fine) used a small amount of fusion fuel to increase the rate and yield of a fission reaction.

New and “improved” version of the device appeared in the years that followed. “Ivy Mike” in 1952 was the first example of a “true” fusion weapon, while “Castle Bravo” in 1954 was the first practical example of the technology. These devices used uncontrolled fusion reactions to release neutrons, which cause the atoms in the surrounding fission fuel to split apart almost instantaneously, increasing the effectiveness of explosive weapons. Unlike normal fission weapons (“normal” bombs), fusion weapons have no practical upper limit to their explosiveness.

"Ivy Mike" blowin' up real good, November 1952.

“Ivy Mike” blowin’ up real good, November 1952.

Spurred on by Richter’s findings (which were later found to be fake), James Leslie “Big Jim” Tuck, a physicist formerly working with one of the UK teams but by then working in Los Alamos, introduced the pinch concept to United States scientists. Tuck produced the excellently-named Perhapsatron, an early fusion power device based on the Z-pinch concept. The first Perhapsatron prototype was completed in 1953, and new and improved models followed periodically until research into the pinch concept more or less ended in the early ‘60s.

Be sure to join us next week for “A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part II”.

* which we haven’t even remotely the time, energy, or intellect to get into here

Manhattan Project Photo credit: Manchester Library via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Ivy Mike Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream via Foter.com / CC BY