Ultrashort electron flashes offer new way to harvest nuclear energy

By Brooks Hays  |  Updated July 12, 2018 at 10:18 AM
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July 12 (UPI) -- Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have developed a new method for exciting and controlling the energy inside an atomic nucleus.

The new method relies on even more precise control of electrons by light. In the lab, researchers achieved coherent manipulation of free-electron wave function at an attosecond timescale. Their demonstrations suggest a similar level of control can be executed at a zeptosecond timescale.

To control the electron, scientist created an interaction between a free-electron wave function and light field created by two tiny light pulses. Scientists measured the amplitude and phase of the resulting electron wave function using ultrafast electron spectroscopy.

The breakthrough could be used to unleash and harvest the energy inside an atomic nucleus, paving the way for more efficient nuclear energy technologies.

"This breakthrough could allow physicists to increase the energy yield of nuclear reactions using coherent control methods, which relies on the manipulation of quantum interference effects with lasers and which has already advanced fields like spectroscopy, quantum information processing, and laser cooling," researchers wrote in a news release.

Earlier this year, scientists observed the excitation of an atom's nucleus caused by the nucleus' absorption of an electron, a process called "nuclear excitation by electron capture" -- the NEEC effect. The process had been theorized but never witnessed.

Scientists believe the process will inspire the next generation of nuclear energy-harvesting systems, and the latest breakthrough could aid their development. More precise electron-light manipulation could allow scientists coherent control over the NEEC effect.

"Ideally, one would like to induce instabilities in an otherwise stable or metastable nucleus to prompt energy-producing decays, or to generate radiation," said researcher Fabrizio Carbone. "However, accessing nuclei is difficult and energetically costly because of the protective shell of electrons surrounding it."

Carbone and his colleagues described their work this week in the journal Nature Communications.

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