A new study suggests that the fusion of subatomic quarks can result in the release of a huge amount of energy, in a process that could potentially rival that of nuclear fusion.

Quarks are the building blocks of all known matter, with different combinations of quarks making up sub-atomic particles such as electrons or protons. Everyone is familiar with the concept of nuclear fusion, particularly hydrogen fusion, where two hydrogen atoms are fused to form a single helium atom, and in the process converting part of the atom’s leftover mass into energy.

In working at the Large Hadron Collider, two researchers, Marek Karliner, with Israel’s Tel Aviv University, and the University of Chicago ‘s Jonathan L. Rosner, were studying the interactions of quarks when they are fused together — the LHC accelerates particles to nearly the speed of light, then smashes them together, to study the individual components that result from the collision. But in doing so, they found that fusing two particles that had two "charm" quarks in each (quarks are whimsically named by their "flavors": up, charm, top, down, strange, and bottom), they found that although the collision required 130 MeV (million electronvolts), the resulting measurements produced 142 MeV — 12 MeV of extra energy had been produced in the reaction.

Karliner and Rosner quickly switched their focus to particles made up of bottom quarks (bottom quarks have more than three times the mass of a charm quark, meaning it contains more than three times the energy), and found that their equations simulating the reactions showed a much more powerful output: while using the heavier particles took more energy to fuse (230 MeV), fusing the bottom-heavy particles also produced much more extra energy — 138 MeV — more than the energy required to simply run the original charm-quark fusion experiment, but also roughly eight times the energy produced in an atomic-level hydrogen-fusion reaction.

The researchers caution that this type of reaction is still theoretical, so dreams of high-powered quark-fusion power plants (and fears of quark-fusion bombs) will have to remain in the realm of science fiction for the time being. Another problem with making practical use of the theory is that a self-sustaining chain reaction using this method would be impossible, as the products of the fusion process only last for approximately one trillionth of a second, not nearly long enough to initiate a chain reaction in other particles; conversely, the products of hydrogen fusion are able to sustain a chain reaction since they are much longer-lived.