Ooooh boy, if you're not familiar with quantum physics or the Coulomb barrier, strap in, you're in for a doozy. If you've ever watched any science documentary about stars, they'll tell you the star spends most of it's life burning hydrogen in the main sequence phase. What they don't tell you is that this burning actually occurs as pretty low temperatures, but is actually dependent on the wave-like properties of atoms.

*Alright I sorta lied about how approachable this topic is, but if you're not familiar with the wave-particle duality, for the purposes of this post you just need to know that at very tiny scales, particles act very much like waves. Check out the Wikipedia post if you're interested in knowing more.*

Let's take two atomic nuclei: particle A with charge \(Z_A\) and mass \(m_A\) and particle B with charge \(Z_B\) and mass \(m_B\). On classical scales, these nuclei are guided by the repulsive Coulomb potential, that is: \(\frac{Z_A Z_B e^2}{4 \pi \epsilon_0 r}\). Effectively what this means is that they either repel or attract each other based on their charge, and the force of this is determined by the radius between them, a la gravity-style. However, if we dig down to a fermi (the measure of distance with 10^{-15} m), there becomes a strong nuclear potential on them, attracting each other. But the meddlesome parent of classical physics intervenes as well, creating a Coulomb Barrier that prevents the nuclei from fusing. This barrier not only prevents the nuclei from fusion, it also causes them to bounce back once the nuclei hit the barrier, which is described by the classical mechanics in which kinetic energy (energy of approach) is converted into potential energy (energy of fusion), until the nuclei hit the Coulomb barrier. Think of it as an "energy" hill, as the nuclei approach each other, the energy the nuclei create must surpass this hill in order to create fusion, shown below:

If the energy generated from the two particles attracting is surmounts the Coulomb barrier, the nuclei successfully enable fusion. However, it's important to note that the height is this barrier is **far** greater than the energies generated from the nuclei is stars. The equation for the energy required for fusion is given by:

\(\begin{gathered}
E = \frac{Z_A Z_B e^2}{4 pi \epsilon_0 r} \approx \frac{1.4 Z_A Z_B}{(r \text{ in fermis)}} \text{MeV}
\end{gathered}\)

But the energy generated from inside a star is on the magnitudes of keV, not MeV. Furthermore, only an extremely small subset of nuclei are even able to obtain energies on the magnitude of MeV at all. So how do stars do it?

The answer is quantum tunneling, which relies on the wave-particle duality. Let us assume the energy curve is simply a "barrier" that the particle must surpass, shown below:

Due to the wave-particle duality, we can model it as a sinusoidal wave (you can move the demo around too!):

There's three things going on:

- First, the particle has a wave function, represented by the blue sinusoidal function at the right.
- Second, as the particle passes through the grided area (the "barrier" of the energy curve), it decays.
- Third, it exits the barrier with a significantly smaller wave function.

What's happening here is that even though it's forbidden in classical physics for the nuclei to pass through the barrier, in quantum physics, the particle can simply"tunnel" through the energy barrier, reaching the forbidden region previous unaccessible to it. There's a lot more going on than just that, but that's a post for another time.

So now we've gotten the general idea of how fusion works, we can start talking about the two types of fusion occurring in the main sequence phase of stars: the P-P chain (I'll talk about the CNO cycle at another time).