Fusion from filaments on Earth and in the cosmos

Fusion from filaments on Earth and in the cosmos

In the first part of this series, we saw that electromagnetic processes in plasmas – electrically conducting gases – could, over trillions of years, produce the giant filaments that we see today as the largest structures in the universe.

This happened without a Big Bang, without dark energy or dark matter, based on processes that we observe here on Earth in the laboratory and in space at all scales.

But the process of filamentary growth only produced huge filaments of current and plasma. How did these vast filaments of plasma in turn produce the glowing hierarchy of planets, stars, galaxies, clusters and superclusters of galaxies that we see today?

In this second part of the series, we see that different processes, still based on well-known physics, produced today’s hierarchy of cosmic structure.

YouTube video

Readers are alerted that this installment in parts is more technical than usual. For help in understanding the discussion below, have a look at Lerner’s video presentations, this one and another that’s embedded farther down. – Jonathan Tennenbaum, Asia Times science editor

The Universe as electric generator

The process that became important when the vast current filaments formed was gravitational contraction. For fundamental reasons, as plasma pioneer Hannes Alfvén pointed out, plasma phenomena have certain characteristic velocities at all scales. Thus huge filaments resemble tiny filaments, just bigger. But the force of gravity gets larger on larger scales, so that on immense scales of billions of lightyears gravitational forces became comparable to magnetic forces.

This follows directly from the laws of gravitation, known back to Newton’s day. Gravitational forces, negligible for filaments light years or even millions of light years across, became dominant when the filaments reached billion-light-year size.

So, gravity started to form blobs of plasma, contracting along the axis of the largest filaments. The centrifugal forces of the spinning filaments resisted gravity toward the axis, but not along it, so disk-shaped blobs formed. But such disks set up a new interaction with the magnetic field.

As Michael Faraday discovered two centuries ago, a conducting disk rotating through a magnetic field produces electrical currents that move from the circumference of the disk toward its center. (This Faraday disk generator was the first way invented to turn energy of motion into electrical currents.)

These disks of plasma, spinning through the magnetic field of the huge filaments, generated a new set of currents flowing towards the axis and a new set of filaments on a smaller scale.

As the disks of plasma formed by gravity rotated in the magnetic fields of the filaments they generated currents that flowed inward and then out along the axis (upper left), leading to the formation of a smaller set of inward-flowing filaments (upper right). We see this hierarchy of electric currents and fields today in galaxies like M83 (lower left, where the directions of fields and currents are indicated by the superimposed lines), creating the structures of glowing stars seen in galaxy NGC 628, imaged in the infrared (lower right). Images: LPPFusion / NASA.

These filamentary currents were extremely important, as they transferred large amounts of angular momentum from the inside of the disk to the surrounding plasma. Isolated objects spin faster as they contract, like a skater drawing in her arms, because angular momentum is conserved.

Gravitational fields can’t transfer angular momentum, so gravitation alone can’t cause object to contract very much – they quickly spin fast enough to counteract gravity. But magnetic fields can convey angular momentum and the inward-flowing filaments act like giant baseball bats, accelerating the outer plasma they hit and, by reaction, slowing down the inner plasma, allowing objects to contract substantially, losing their spin.

When the filamentary currents converge in the center of the collapsing object, they bend at right angles to exit along the axis. At this point, another instability process takes over and the filaments start to kink together, winding themselves up into a dense ball of plasma called a plasmoid.

The interacting electromagnetic process in the plasmoid generates huge electrical fields, accelerating beams of atomic nuclei (protons) in one direction and electrons in the other along the axis. These spinning beams also carry large amounts of angular momentum, allowing the centers of the objects to contract further.

It was only the combination of gravity with the filamentary currents and magnetic fields that allowed dense structures to form, as Hannes Alfvén first pointed out in the 1980s. Without the filaments and the beams carrying away angular momentum, gravity alone could have formed merely diffuse plasma disks, not dense structures.

Since each stage of contractions sets up the conditions for a smaller set of filaments to form, a gigantic hierarchy of structure slowly formed in the universe from the largest primordial vortices on scales of billions of light years, to superclusters of galaxies on hundreds of millions of light year, to clusters of galaxies millions of light years across, to individual galaxies like the Milky Way ten thousand light years across, to molecular clouds only a few light years across, finally to stars a million kilometers in radius (a ten-millionth of a light year).  We see this hierarchy in the sky today.

The short-lived plasmoids at the cores of the objects, which dissipate themselves in the birth of the objects, we see today on many scales from giant quasars at the center of clusters of galaxies down to Herbig-Haro objects that are formed in the birth of every star, including our sun.

Filaments kink up to form dense plasmoids that emit beams of ions and electrons in opposite directions, as shown in an illustration of LPPFusion’s dense plasma focus device (left), which produces plasmoids 0.5 mm across. The same process helps to produce stars, as shown in the JWST image of Herbig-Haro object HH211, which is emitting beams lightyears long. The baby star is hidden by dark dust in the center of the NASA image. Images: LPPFusion / NASA

In this immense process, playing out over trillions of years, the universe was converted into an electrical generator, with gravitational energy converted into kinetic energy and then into flows of electrical energy. Through the hierarchical structure formation, the energy flows became more and more concentrated, with the power flux in Herbig-Haro objects exceeding that in the primordial vortices by factors of thousands of trillions or more.

The end result of the process, which is still ongoing in the present-day cosmos, is the formation of myriads of stars. Stars are so dense that the filament formation process does not continue within them. Collisions between particles are frequent enough that they disrupt the filaments and the plasma in the stars acts more like a fluid.

Fusion energy in the cosmos

But the formation of stars begins a new stage in the evolution of the cosmos, because stars are also dense enough to produce huge amounts of fusion energy. While plasma between stars can get hot enough for fusion reactions, the very first fusion reactions that occur between hydrogen nuclei to form deuterium are very rare events at any temperature because they involve a proton turning into a neutron. [This reaction is considered to be the first in the chain of reactions taking place in stars. – JT]

Only at high densities (stars are about as dense as solids on earth) are these events common enough to produce significant amounts of energy. But over billions of years, fusion reactions release thousands of times more energy than the gravitational energy released in forming stars and galaxies. (We’ll discuss this next stage in cosmic evolution in the third part of this series of articles.)

Evidence for the magnetic-gravitational process of structure formation comes from the hierarchy of magnetized filaments observed at all scales from the cm-scale of laboratory experiments (upper left) to the lightyear-scale of star-forming filaments (upper right) to the millions-of-lightyears-long galaxy-forming filaments (lower left—our Milky Way galaxy is as large as the red letter ”E” in this image), all the way up to filaments of clusters of galaxies stretching across hundreds of millions of light years ( lower right). Image: LPPFusion / Hacar, A. et al / Wang, J-W. et al / Kounkel M.& Covey K. / Santiago-Bautista, I., et al

There is abundant evidence that this cosmic history passes the test of correct prediction of subsequent observations – unlike the Big Bang story. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence is in the correct prediction of the hierarchy of structure formation itself. The physics of the theory made a number of quantitative predictions, starting with my own paper in 1986, which have subsequently proven valid.

First, the theory predicted that the density of the cosmos should be inversely proportional to the scale on which the density is measured. Mathematicians call this a fractal with dimension 2. Subsequent observations probing deeper and deeper into space have confirmed this prediction.

Second, observations have confirmed the prediction that filaments should exist up to scales of 4-5 billion lightyears in radius. This is in complete contradiction to the predictions of the expanding universe (Big Bang) hypothesis that predicted no structures of that size could exist – because they would take too long to form.

Third, the theory (again based just on electromagnetism, plasma physics and gravitation) predicted that there would be a maximum rotational velocity to astrophysical objects at all scales of around 1,000 km/sec. Together with the prediction of a fractal spacing of objects this prediction leads to the size and spacing of structure in the universe, and the fact that the cosmic ladder is not evenly spaced: The bottom rungs are much farther apart than the top ones. Thus, stars are separated from their neighbors by tens of millions of times their radii while clusters of galaxies have neighbors only a hundred times their radius away.

Fusion energy on earth

The process of filament formation that concentrates energy and matter in the cosmos sufficiently to initiate fusion reactions is crucial to the effort to harness fusion energy here on earth. Current filaments form in hot plasmas that are needed to produce any fusion reactions.

In most fusion devices, the filaments are considered undesirable, because their wriggling can lead to plasma escaping from the man-made magnetic field the contain it. However, a different approach, which we at LPPFusion use with a device called the dense plasma focus (DPF), imitates nature and actually uses the same filamentation process to produce fusion reactions.

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The discussion gets particularly technical from this point. See this video for an animated presentation. – JT

Since on a small scale gravitational forces are negligible, the DPF device instead uses the geometry of the electrodes to produce a very similar process of self-compressing plasma. Rather than using gravitational energy to energize the current, the DPF takes electric energy stored in capacitors. In our experimental device this energy comes from the grid, while in a fusion power plant it would come from energy produced by the previous pulse of the device.

In the dense plasma focus, current from capacitors flows from outer vanes in an inner cylinder, forming filaments (A). The filamentary current sheath, driven by the interaction of its own currents and magnetic field, travels down to the end of the inner hollow electrode, where the filaments converge into a single central pinch region, concentrating both plasma and magnetic fields (B). The central filament then kinks (C, D) like an overtwisted phone cord, forming a plasmoid (E), an extremely dense, hot, magnetically self-confined ball of plasma only tens of microns across. Fusion reaction then start to take place. The changing magnetic fields in the plasmoid induce an electric field, which generates a beam of electrons in one direction and a beam of ions in the other (F). The energy is released in the ion and electron beams and in a burst of x-ray energy from the heated electrons in the plasmoid.  Images: LPPFusion

Standing in for a galaxy is a vacuum chamber with some gas inside and two electrodes, the cathode (negative) on the outside, the anode (positive) on the inside, separated by a ceramic insulator. When fast switches initiate, the electrons start to flow vertically across the insulator from the cathode to the anode.

The same pinch forces that operate in the cosmos pull the current together into filaments, which we and many others observe with the device. The interaction of the electric currents with the magnetic field they produce accelerates the filaments outwards to the cathode vanes and down the anode to its hollow tip.

As in the center of a galaxy, the currents are forced by the shape of the anode to turn first to head inward to the center, then to turn along the axis where, as in a galaxy, they pinch together into one much more powerful filament. Just as in the astrophysical cases, the filament then kinks up into a plasmoid.

The net result is to compress and heat the plasma many-fold until fusion reactions start to take place. (See video 2). Since we can’t wait around for billions of years for the ultra-slow fusion reactions to occur with pure hydrogen, we instead use much more reactive fuels – deuterium, or hydrogen-boron.

With these fuels, reactions take billionths of second instead of billions of years, because they are driven by the strong nuclear force between nucleons which hold nuclei together, while hydrogen-hydrogen reactions in stars – the first step in producing helium from hydrogen – are driven by the weak nuclear force, which causes radioactivity. So here we improve considerably on nature.

Finally, as the plasmoid decays, it shoots out the beam of ions in one direction and electrons in the other, just like the vastly larger beams produce by Herbig-Haro objects and quasars. In our DPF device, the ion beam will carry away most of the energy produced by the fusion reactions, enabling us to change that energy back into energy in an electrical circuit at high efficiency.

The similarity of the astrophysical and DPF processes is not coincidental. Those like Winston Bostick and Vittorio Nardi who pioneered the development of the DPF were deeply involved in the effort to mimic the creative processes of the cosmos in the laboratory. Alfvén had pioneered the idea that only by understanding the cosmic processes could fusion and other energetic electric processes on earth be understood.

And my own contributions to the theory of the DPF were based on using it as a model for quasars. In the next section of this series, we’ll discuss the most recent stage of cosmic evolution, driven by thermonuclear fusion processes in stars, which gives rise to the elements which we all consist of, and also gives rise to the cosmic microwave background.

Eric J Lerner is chief scientist of LPPFusion, Inc.