The science behind fusion power

This is the second post of our series on nuclear fusion power.

The science behind fusion is not simple. The treatment I give it during these posts is necessarily brief, and more descriptive than quantitative in nature. It generally takes years of studying to gain a firm grasp of the concepts employed in the study of nuclear fusion.

However, an interested person can gain a good working knowledge of many of these concepts much more quickly. It is certainly possible to gain an intuitive grasp of most physics concepts without having gone through years of formal education in the field. There are many science resources for the general public which are aimed at creating this sort of understanding. I also hope that this series of posts is a significant aid to curious people without a formal background in physics.

If you want to dig deeper into the science that underlies these concepts, I recommend the following resources as starting points. I am assuming of course that the reader is able and willing to track down a lot of their own information for the mathematical and physical foundations of these concepts if they are necessary for understanding. What I have listed here are just the general things that stick out at me as being fundamentally necessary to understand nuclear fusion reasonably well.


This is the most important of the four fundamental forces for considerations of plasma containment. The coulomb interaction is the basic fact that presents a barrier to fusion processes, where the positively charged nuclei will repel one another.

The best general book on the subject of electromagnetism is certainly Griffiths Introduction to Electrodynamics. This book is regarded by many as the best textbook in all of physics.

If you want web resources that cover the topics of Griffiths: you can learn Vector Analysis in several places around the Internet, similarly with electrostaticsLaplace’s equationmethod of imagespolarizationmagnetostatics, and so on.

However, I haven’t found any online resource that comes even close to challenging the quality of Griffiths. If you want to save yourself a lot of online detective work and confusion on these topics, buy Griffiths Introduction to Electrodynamics.

To understand the basics of fusion techniques, you need to understand coulomb interaction and magnetostatics. Knowledge of electrodynamics and Faraday’s law would be very helpful for understanding the tokamak.

Nuclear Physics

Hyperphysics has a good introduction to nuclear physics. I find their work to be generally of high quality. Wikipedia also has many nice articles on the subject. One that I liked at a glance was the one on the atomic nucleus.

Another easy introduction can be found at Think Quest, where they have a page on nuclear physics. Note that the titles of each section are clickable, and take you to a page detailing that topic.

In school I used the textbook Introductory Nuclear Physics by Kenneth Krane. Don’t let the word ‘introduction’ fool you. This is an 864 page book that goes into exquisite detail about not only what we know about the atomic nucleus, but how we know it. Krane approached this from an experimentalist point of view, which I appreciate.  Some other books will present simply what we know, not how we know it.  He shows how every major nuclear discovery since the time of Ernest Rutherford took place, and what we learned from it. In short, I was very impressed with this book.


Earlier in this piece I mentioned the Carnot Engine and the second law of thermodynamics. These two concepts are very important, but they are only a tiny portion of the areas of thermodynamics that are directly relevant to Nuclear Fusion.

I have yet to read a good textbook on the subject of thermodynamics, but I imagine there are some. The most read book I could find on the subject at Amazon was actually Thermodynamics by Enrico Fermi. Apparently this is an incredible textbook. It assumes that the reader understand calculus (up to at least partial differentiation). For those that don’t know, Enrico Fermi was a Nobel Prize winner in physics. He was incredibly influential in the development of physics as we know it today, as well as the nuclear fission program. The term fermion bears his name. It is a term that is used more often in the subject areas of particle physics and high-energy physics.

For a lower-level introduction, I liked the look of this piece on thermodynamics at Think Quest (note that there is a menu on the right with the laws of thermodynamics). A more technical approach can be found on NASA’s Thermodynamics page.

Plasma Physics

Plasma physics depends on exceedingly good knowledge of electromagnetism and thermodynamics. Also, it is good to know some statistical mechanics as well.

Plasma physics is complicated and difficult. Gaining an intuitive feel for these concepts may be much harder than with the fields listed above. I certainly found this to be so. I recommend getting at least a good solid primer in the above subjects before even attempting to dig into plasma physics in depth.

As far as online resources go, I found a very nice looking site by I. H. Hutchinson. It actually looks like there is an entire textbook worth of knowledge there available for free. On the first page it says:

A solid undergraduate background in classical physics, electromagnetic theory including Maxwell’s equations, and mathematical familiarity with partial differential equations and complex analysis are prerequisites.

If you are looking for a physical textbook on plasma physics, I am afraid that there are none that I can recommend from my own experience. However, there is a textbook that I found recently that seems to be very well regarded. It is Introduction to plasma physics and controlled fusion by Francis F. Chen.

Good luck!

This concludes my brief overview of the areas of physics knowledge that are necessary for understanding fusion power at a relatively deep level. I encourage people to pursue their interests in these areas. The web is an incredible information resource, even on subjects that seem as inscrutable as complex physics.

I will also make a general plug for the Google Scholar search engine. It has helped me immensely over the years. I like that it now displays pdf (or other document type) links to the right of the results. This means I can quickly scan to see which results have free versions available online. I find that this is an excellent way to quickly access quality scholarship on almost any subject.

I bid you all good luck and happy learning!

For further reading, you may be interested in our introduction to fusion power, or our follow-up post on tools for understanding nuclear fusion.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

5 thoughts to “The science behind fusion power”

  1. Pay attention to August 12 – 17,2012 at Berkeley, CA for the 19th HIF Symposium!

    The energy source for the future … RF Accelerator Driven Heavy Ion Fusion Power

    There is a solution to the energy need for the world and the US without generating green house gases or nuclear fission radioactive problems.

    It is Heavy Ion Fusion (HIF) as developed in the late 1970’s at Argonne National Lab under the Department of Defense (DOD).

    You never heard of it, … right, few people have, … as HIF was set aside by the US DOD (& DOE) in favor of lasers, as lasers could maybe be a weapon and HIF could not be a weapon.

    Fusion was first suggested as a potential power source in the late 1920’s. The first earth-bound fusion reaction was demonstrated in 1952. Then shown potentially doable in a small size in 1978-9 at Argonne National Lab and Hughes Lab. Since then it has been endorsed for 35 years by the scientific community “as the conservative way to go” to develop fusion as an energy generation source … but never funded, as it was and is still BIG (expensive, prolific and “benign”). In 1980, the world did not need a BIG new source of energy, as it does now. Fusion was put on the shelf or attached to research projects to see if it could be done in small (MW-GW) size. Fusion cannot be done small and be economical. Data suggests that fusion can produce 5-7 cents kWh electricity, $3.20 per/gal fuel, and $0.002 per gallon for potable water, all needed today and at a very reasonable unit price.

    In 2009, Fusion Power Corporation with Dr. Robert J. Burke and Dr. Charles E. Helsley, secured a patent using heavy ions as the energy source to fuse the Hydrogen isotopes Deuterium and Tritium producing Helium and heat. It solves the problems that Germany, Russia, America and Japan were having in focusing enough energy on the pellet (target) to cause fusion to occur.

    In December 2010, the process was presented at the 18th HIF International Symposium in Darmstadt, Germany, along with an economic model, by FPC.

    In May of 2011, FPC presented the process to the Accelerators for Heavy Ion Fusion Workshop (AHIF) at Berkeley CA, sponsored by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Virtual National Lab (DOD & DOE). Again, the result was “now is the time to move forward” with a fusion program … as there is now a world need for a large new carbon free energy source.

    The science has been done and it now is an engineering process. FPC’s process applies known and existing technologies in unique and novel ways to provide the energy necessary for fusion to occur. FPC’s fusion power is more developed than was rocketry in 1961 when JFK committed the nation (US) to go to the moon and back.

    FPC is an engineering design, implementation and licensing company. FPC’s mission is to provide the energy necessary for maintaining current levels of energy use (standard of living) and to provide opportunities for growth in the energy supply using fusion. FPC’s vision is the development of a fusion power source based on the use of the techniques of radio frequency (RF) accelerator-driven Heavy Ion Fusion (HIF) that were researched in the 1970’s; a technique that has repeatedly received scientific endorsement. FPC’s primary goal is to translate the science vetted design of a RF accelerator-driven fusion power system to one that can be brought on-line within a decade – each installation having an energy output equivalent to that of a giant oil field without the depletion problem and located where needed.

    FPC can also be eligible for carbon credits, as FPC can produce per day, 500,000 bls of a carbon neutral synthetic liquid fuel (diesel-kerosene-gasoline), 15 GW electric, and 2000+ ac/ft of potable water from sea water, all with no GHGs, no highly radioactive waste and no potential for a “run-away” nuclear meltdown.

    By 2050, fusion will be the source of most of the worlds energy. This is not wishful thinking, it is simply a way of stating that all other forms of energy that are based on the use of finite fossil fuel sources must decline in the next few decades. This decline will provide a major impetus for the rapid increase in the utilization of this new form of energy. Wind, solar and bio fuels are only “feel good solutions” of “we are doing something to solve the problem” when have little possibility of generating the 14 TW needed in the next 40 years. I can show you the math.

    HIF is the ONLY practical answer for non-proliferation of atomic weapons and maybe the real way to world peace … non-aggression for national energy supplies and national security.

    Let us get moving to really solve the energy problem … not 35 more years of research!

    For more information and detail of the FPC HIF process visit and see the You Tube presentations “StarPower for Tomorrow” and Goggle Tech Talk “Heavy Ion Fusion”.

    Inquires may be sent to: .

  2. I don’t think that your list is sufficient to understand fusion – I mean fusion that is actually useful… There were some experiments on cold fusion but they seem to be not reproducible. However, I believe in the idea and maybe we see something in the future that we can understand and use to generate energy. Then your list is probably a bit longer 🙂

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