Physicists feared nuclear fusion discovery would lead to new atomic bomb

3 Nov 2017

Image: GiroScience/Shutterstock

It sounds like something from science fiction, but a team of physicists feared their nuclear fusion discovery was too dangerous to be published.

A pair of physicists have raised some serious eyebrows in the scientific community with the claim that they have discovered an incredibly powerful nuclear fusion reaction that, at one point, they feared would do more damage than good.

According to Live Science, the researchers identified the massive energy potential from the tiny particle known as a bottom quark, one of six different types of quark. When two are fused together, they form a larger subatomic particle, another particle called a nucleon and one major eruption of energy.

Measurements of the amount of energy showed it was immensely powerful, producing 138 megaelectronvolts, the unit of measurement of energy at this scale. To put it into perspective, this amount of energy would be eight times more powerful than a single fusion event that takes place within a hydrogen bomb, of which billions occur following its detonation.

This gave the Israel-based researchers quite a fright, so much so that they debated whether or not to publish their discovery, wary of its deadly potential.

However, there was some good news for those fearing that a potential planet-killer bomb is on the way, according to Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University, co-researcher on the project.

“I must admit that when I first realised that such a reaction was possible, I was scared,” he said, “but, luckily, it is a one-trick pony.”

Gone quicker than the blink of an eye

What makes it a “one-trick pony” is that, without a single reaction being a part of a chain of reactions, the quark collision isn’t very dangerous at all.

Additionally, they calculated that if they were to use bottom quarks, such a reaction wouldn’t be possible anyway because, by their nature, they exist for just one picosecond, or one-trillionth of a second, before turning into a safer ‘up’ quark.

Nuclear weapons meanwhile are reliant on the ability to stockpile particles, which means we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Both Karliner and his research partner Jonathan Rosner wanted to be absolutely sure, however, that there was no chance it could be used for nefarious means before publishing their findings in the journal Nature.

“If I thought for a microsecond that this had any military applications, I would not have published it,” Karliner said.

The discovery’s importance to science remains quite substantial as it is the first theoretical proof that subatomic particles can fuse together to release massive amounts of energy.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic