Fusion powers the sun, and if we could harness it here on Earth, we could obtain unlimited clean energy. Scientists have been working on that goal for years, and now researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Texas A&M University just made a huge leap forwards. Helium, a byproduct of the process, typically bubbles and weakens the materials comprising a fusion reactor. But inside of nanocomposite solids (instead of the metal of regular fusion reactors), helium doesn’t form into destructive bubbles – it actually tunnels vein-like channels to escape.
Fusion energy isn’t easy to generate in part because of the difficulty in finding materials able to withstand the grueling conditions inside a fusion reactor’s core. These researchers may have found an answer by exploring how helium behaves in nanocomposite solids – and the results surprised them. Because while helium doesn’t endanger the environment, according to Texas A&M University, it does damage fusion reactor materials. Inside a solid material, helium bubbles out, akin to carbon dioxide in carbonated water.
Michael Demkowicz, Texas A&M associate professor, said, “Literally, you get these helium bubbles inside of the metal that stay there forever because the metal is solid. As you accumulate more and more helium, the bubbles start to link up and destroy the entire material.”
But inside nanocomposite solids – which Texas A&M describes as “materials made of stacks of thick metal layers” – helium didn’t bubble. Instead, it actually made channels similar to human veins. Demkowicz said, “We were blown away by what we saw. As you put more and more helium inside these nanocomposites, rather than destroying the material, the veins actually start to interconnect, resulting in kind of a vascular system.” And the researchers think the helium could then flow out of the material “without causing any further damage,” according to Texas A&M.
The surprising discovery could have more applications than in just fusion reactors. Demkowicz said, “I think the bigger picture here is in vascularized solids…What else could be transported through such networks? Perhaps heat or electricity or even chemicals that could help the material self-heal.”
The journal Science Advances published the research this month.