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How nuclear fusion works to let stars shine

A graphic with blue and yellow balls on the sides of the image and a circle in the middle with a mix of balls that says
Here’s how nuclear fusion works to power the sun and stars. In this illustration, the blue balls represent neutrons, and the yellow balls represent protons. 2 hydrogen atoms, for example, fuse to make 1 heavier atom of helium (He). In this process, there is leftover energy that enables stars to shine. Image via DOE.

Big news today about the breakthrough in nuclear power generation here on Earth! AP called it a milestone for climate and clean energy. Here’s how nuclear fusion works to power the sun and stars. This is an explainer from the U.S. Department of Energy. Edits by EarthSky.

How nuclear fusion works

An explainer from the U.S. Department of Energy. Edits by EarthSky.

Nuclear fusion reactions power the sun and other stars. In a fusion reaction, two light nuclei of atoms merge to form a single heavier nucleus. The leftover mass becomes energy.

Einstein’s equation (E=mc2) – which says in part that mass and energy can be converted into each other – explains why this process occurs.

If scientists develop a way to harness energy from fusion in machines on Earth, it could be an important method of energy production.

Fusion can involve many different elements in the periodic table. However, researchers working on fusion energy applications are especially interested in the deuterium-tritium (DT) fusion reaction. DT fusion produces a neutron and a helium nucleus. In the process, it also releases much more energy than most fusion reactions. In a potential future fusion power plant such as a tokamak or stellarator, neutrons from DT reactions would generate power for our use. Researchers focus on DT reactions both because they produce large amounts of energy and they occur at lower temperatures than other elements.

Bottom line: Nuclear fusion powers our sun, and is the energy source of all the stars in our night sky. Here’s how nuclear fusion works to make stars shine.

Available now! 2023 EarthSky lunar calendar. A unique and beautiful poster-sized calendar showing phases of the moon every night of the year. Makes a great gift!

Via DOE

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