In recent years, scientists have made great strides toward harnessing nuclear fusion, in hopes to one day create reactors that produce near-limitless clean energy.
But now, a pair of researchers has discovered a new subatomic event that releases energy in amounts beyond all expectations.
Scientists found that certain types of elementary particles known as quarks can achieve fusion in a powerful ‘quarksplosion,’ resulting in eight times more energy than that released in the individual processes at the heart of hydrogen bombs.
Quarks are among the building blocks of matter, giving rise to protons and neutrons.
There are six ‘flavors’ of quarks: up and down, top and bottom, strange and charm.
In the new research, scientists at Tel Aviv University and the University of Chicago investigated what happens when quarks are fused, as prior studies have suggested that the process releases energy.
It’s been suggested that the fusion of a doubly-charmed baryon (a type of subatomic particle composed of quarks) can release 12 megaelectronvolts (MeV) of energy.
But, when the team focused on bottom quarks, which are much heavier, the calculations revealed staggering amounts of energy would be released from the process.
The results are detailed in a study published to the journal Nature.
According to the researchers, the first type of reaction was a ‘quark-level analogue of the deuterium-tritium nuclear fusion reaction.’
But, ‘the much larger binding energy between two bottom quarks causes the analogous reaction with bottom quarks to have a much larger energy release of about 138 MeV.’
This, according to the team, is about eight times more energy than that released during individual hydrogen fusion events – the process that, by the billions, drives hydrogen bombs.
Given the initial implications, the researchers considered not publishing their findings.
After further calculations, however, they found that they could not produce chain reactions with quarks, as they quickly decay into smaller, less dangerous particles.
Individually, the reactions do not pose the same risks.
‘I must admit that when I first realized that such a reaction was possible, I was scared,’ lead author Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University told Live Science.
‘But, luckily, it is a one-trick pony.
‘If I thought for a microsecond that this had any military applications, I would not have published it.’
For now, the researchers say the work remains theoretical.
With experiments at facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider, though they say the reaction should be feasible.
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