A joint-team of physicists from the University of Chicago and Tel Aviv University (Israel) discovered a new type of fusion that occurs when quarks collide. The reaction is so powerful that the team almost didn’t publish their results for fear it would be abused or weaponized.
For close to a century now we’ve understood that the protons and neutrons within an atom hold an impressive amount of energy. This knowledge has allowed us to develop the process of nuclear fission, which in turn has allowed for the creation of nuclear reactors and weapons. While the process of splitting an atom can create abundant energy, it also leads to the creation of nuclear waste. This has prompted scientists to pursue nuclear fusion, which fuses atoms instead of splitting them apart. The process still allows for the creation of vast amounts of energy but produces far less radioactive waste.
Exploring the concept of fusion, the joint US/Isreali team decided to forgo the typical use of protons and neutrons and instead focused on quarks. Quarks are the tiny particles that make up protons and neutrons, which in turn make up atoms. What the team discovered, however, was truly shocking. By studying quarks, they were able to calculate that fusing two heavy quarks would produce 138 mega-electron volts. For reference, that’s almost 8 times as much energy as an H-bomb produces.
While producing 138 mega-electrons would mean an answer to the worlds energy needs, it also summons images of vast mushrooms clouds if abused. Thankfully though, neither can happen. It turns out that the heavy quarks being used in this way only exist for one trillionth of a second after being fused, and then they transform themselves into lighter quarks which are far less potent. This means that we can’t pack these into a bomb, nor can we sadly harness them to cheaply and cleanly power our planet. Still, it did cause the team to triple check their calculations in fear of creating a deadly new weapon.