The process of converting very light nuclei into heavier nuclei is also accompanied by the conversion of mass into large amounts of energy, a process called fusion. The principal source of energy in the sun is a net fusion reaction in which four hydrogen nuclei fuse and ultimately produce one helium nucleus and two positrons.
A helium nucleus has a mass that is 0.7% less than that of four hydrogen nuclei; this lost mass is converted into energy during the fusion. This reaction produces about 1.7 × 109 to 2.6 × 109 kilojoules of energy per mole of helium-4 produced, depending on the fusion pathway. This is somewhat less than the energy produced by the nuclear fission of one mole of U-235 (1.8 × 1010 kJ). However, the fusion of one gram of helium-4 produces about 6.5 × 108 kJ, which is greater than the energy produced by the fission of one gram of U-235 (8.5 × 107 kJ). This is particularly notable because the reactants for helium fusion are less expensive and far more abundant than U-235 is.
It has been determined that the nuclei of the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, a deuteron and a triton, undergo thermonuclear fusion at extremely high temperatures to form a helium nucleus and a neutron. This change proceeds with a mass loss of 0.0188 amu, corresponding to the release of 1.69 × 109 kilojoules per mole of helium-4 formed. The very high temperature is necessary to give the nuclei enough kinetic energy to overcome the very strong repulsive forces resulting from the positive charges on their nuclei so they can collide.
Useful fusion reactions require very high temperatures for their initiation—about 15,000,000 K or more. At these temperatures, all molecules dissociate into atoms, and the atoms ionize, forming plasma. These conditions occur in an extremely large number of locations throughout the universe—stars are powered by fusion.
It is a challenging task to create fusion reactors because no solid materials are stable at such high temperatures and mechanical devices cannot contain the plasma in which fusion reactions occur. Two techniques to contain plasma at the density and temperature necessary for a fusion reaction are currently the focus of intensive research efforts: containment by a magnetic field in a tokamak reactor and the use of focused laser beams. However, at present there are no self-sustaining fusion reactors operating in the world, although small-scale controlled fusion reactions have been run for very brief periods.
This text is adapted from the Openstax, Chemistry 2e, Section 21.4: Transmutation and Nuclear Energy.
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