A team at the Colorado School of Mines is working to create hydrogen membranes for use in nuclear fusion power plants.

The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), could play a key part in making fusion a realistic source of clean energy in the future.

Fusion is a nuclear reaction that combines two atoms to create one or more new atoms with slightly less total mass. The difference in mass is released as energy, as described by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, where energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Since the speed of light is enormous, converting just a tiny amount of mass into energy – like what happens in fusion – produces a similarly enormous amount of energy.

In the sun, four hydrogen atoms are fused together to form helium, which is accompanied by a very small loss of mass that generates this energy. On Earth, this process is recreated in a magnetically confined plasma using the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium.

In the plasma reactor, only a fraction of these isotopes are converted into helium, so it is critical to efficiently separate the unreacted isotopes from helium and recycle them back to the fusion reactor.

The team at Mines, led by Colin Wolden, professor of chemical and biological engineering, is developing composite membranes for this purpose.

Membranes are often used to purify hydrogen for fuels cells or in the chemical process industry, but researchers at the university say the ones they are creating are tailored to operate in the environment of a fusion power plant.

The university says the composite membranes are based on low-cost metal foils, such as vanadium or iron, whose surfaces must be modified to facilitate the transport of hydrogen while withstanding exposure to plasma radiation and high-temperature molten salts.

Researchers at the School of Mines are using tools of the semiconductor industry, such as reactive sputtering and atomic layer deposition, to modify and enable the environment for this performance.

Wolden said creating a successful membrane could enable a lower cost and more secure fusion energy system and potentially aid in making fusion power plants a reality.

“Fusion has the potential to be an infinite carbon-free power source,” Wolden said. “This may be the long-term solution.”

Proponents of nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun and stars, hope that it could one day also produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy, helping accelerate the planet away from fossil fuels.

Commercial nuclear fusion energy is expected to take decades to become economically viable.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California hit a breakthrough in December 2022, producing more energy in a nuclear fusion reaction than was used to ignite it, a long-sought accomplishment known as net energy gain.

The extremely brief fusion reaction, which used 192 lasers and temperatures measured at multiple times hotter than the center of the sun, was achieved Dec. 5.

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