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A Little Sun in Your Life… Dire Consequences?

March 20, 2009 on 1:18 pm | In Astronomy, Physics |

I really get a kick out of reading The Straight Dope. What started as a weekly column in a Chicago newspaper has grown into a nationwide phenomenon and a small empire, and is often full of fascinating questions and extremely well-researched and knowledgeable answers.

But doesn’t anyone there know to contact me if you’ve got an astrophysics question? Today’s column, which will be nationally syndicated, declares that they cannot answer the following question:

If the pink grapefruit sitting in my fruit bowl spontaneously turned into a grapefruit-sized sun, what would happen to my flat, London, and the rest of the world? If I put it somewhere safe, could I enjoy not paying for central heating? Or would it end life as we know it by melting through my floor, into the African textile shop, through the subway system, and finally to a fiery chasm in the middle of the earth where it would make all volcanoes erupt and kill everything, before coming out the other side and changing the way all the planets spin?

Well, I may be no Cecil Adams, but I can certainly answer this one. Let’s take a look at how our Sun actually works, and then scale it down to be grapefruit-sized.

The Sun is a giant ball of mostly hydrogen gas. It’s extraordinarily massive — about 300,000 times as massive as Earth — and tremendous powerful. The Sun gives off what most people would call an unfathomable amount of energy, but in scientific notation, it’s about 4 x 1026 Watts, which is at least fathomable, although it’s absolutely tremendous. This means that even at the surface of the Earth, 150 million kilometers away, that means we have 129 Watts of solar energy striking us over every square foot that receives sunlight.

But what’s truly exciting, at least for me, is the way the Sun creates its energy. To understand it, we have to go down to the tiniest atomic levels, and look at the hydrogen atoms themselves:

Because the pressure at the center of the Sun is so high, due to the gravitational pressure of having 300,000 Earths pushing in at the core, the nuclei of these hydrogen atoms, protons, get pushed together with a tremendous force. The force is so large that it causes these nuclei to fuse together, in a process called nuclear fusion. With a little math, I can figure out that in order to create the amount of energy the Sun gives off, it has to fuse together about 3.6 x 1038 atoms of hydrogen every second! That little atomic reaction, happening over and over, trillions of times every nanosecond in the Sun’s core, is what produces all the heat, light, and energy we’ve ever received from the Sun.

Now, the person who asked this question wanted to know about having a little stable grapefruit-sized Sun.

Well, here’s a big downer for you: this thing ain’t gonna be stable. If you want to have nuclear fusion going on at the core of this grapefruit-sized ball of hydrogen, you’re going to need a tremendous amount of pressure to push the atoms at the center together. There are only two ways to handle it that we know of, and neither one of them will give you an answer that you’ll like, although they’re both fascinating.

The first way is to artificially increase the pressure, like lasers (shown here) would do. Practically, you wind up getting less energy out than you have to put in to increase the pressure to obtain fusion, which is another disappointment. Scientists working on this call it inertial confinement fusion, and so far, it has never yielded more energy than it took to get it going. So this way looks like a dud. But there’s another way to get nuclear fusion…

You can increase the pressure tremendously — albeit for a very short time — by setting off a small explosion around the hydrogen core, compressing it and causing ignition. There’s a problem with this way, too. The resulting fusion reaction is uncontrolled and runs away, igniting everything. This is commonly known as a hydrogen bomb.

Either way, you give off a tremendous amount of energy, your initial “grapefruit” gets blown apart like a super-powerful exploding grenade, and depending on how much of the hydrogen in there actually managed to fuse would determine what happened. If you scaled down the Sun so that the grapefruit worked on exactly the same scale, you’d only get about 100 million atoms fusing together, or about 100 microJoules of energy. Enough energy to push the hydrogen gas away, but not even enough energy to light a match. But, if you managed to fuse the entire grapefruit into helium, you’d get the energy equivalent of a 160 kiloTonne explosion, or about 11 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in your fruit bowl.

Without the entire mass of the Sun to insulate this nuclear explosion from the rest of the Solar System, this grapefruit-sized ball isn’t going to last long. Either way, you’re better off getting a heat lamp for your desk, and paying your electric bill.


18 Comments »

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  1. Nice article, Ethan. Makes me wonder how Doc Oct ever got his initial startup funding. Perhaps it was the sweet mechanical arms stuck to this back. :)

    Comment by Richard — March 20, 2009 #

  2. Everything seems so small when we are facing the infite… Anyway, the grapefruit-sized sun already exists, a couple of years ago I heard about something called “Toshiba Micro Nuclear Reactor For Home Fission” - you can google it.

    Comment by Adam — September 4, 2009 #

  3. my girlfriend has a grape fruit plantation in their backyard and we always taste some of the harvest.;~;

    Comment by Joshua Taylor — June 10, 2010 #

  4. fun thread.

    Comment by FRIEND — July 19, 2010 #

  5. we always use grapefruit on our dessert and this is a fruit that is full of antioxidants too.,-”

    Comment by Juan Torres — July 20, 2010 #

  6. wat gas grapefruit got to do wth d sun?

    Comment by adez — September 22, 2010 #

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    Comment by Dylan Solt — October 1, 2010 #

  8. i can munch a lot of grapefruit in a couple of minutes, that is really my favorite fruit ~::

    Comment by Gas Sensor %0B — December 13, 2010 #

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    Comment by nadia — December 16, 2010 #

  10. .,-”

    Comment by nadia — December 16, 2010 #

  11. I knew any fruit spontaneously morphing into a sun would end badly (someone’s gonna need a new fruit bowl). Your description paired with visuals… hysterical!! Excellent education, even better laugh! Thanks!

    Comment by Stacy — February 26, 2011 #

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