For the first time, a nuclear fusion device is to be built and operated by students. The device, called a ‘tokamak’, is being designed to produce the extreme heats necessary for fusion to take place.
The program is part of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) scheme which engages students in a variety of different developments.
“This project will be the first in the world where students will design, build and manage a fusion reactor,” says project lead Dr Patrick Burr. “We want to excite the next generation of innovators and make them realise how they can make a big change in the world.”
To be accurate, it must be said the UNSW’s student-built device won’t actually create a fusion reaction.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite of fission.
Fission is the process by which heavy elements like uranium are broken up. This is the basis for nuclear reactors that function around the world today.
Fusion is where the atomic nuclei of lighter elements like hydrogen or boron fuse together to make heavier ones, giving off huge amounts of energy. This is the process which occurs in the core of our Sun and all active stars, giving them the energy they require to burn for billions of years.
As a potentially clean and powerful energy source, nuclear fusion technology is one of the fastest areas of growth in the energy research sector.
But there’s a catch.
Nuclear fusion requires extreme temperatures and pressures. Temperatures of 150–300 million degrees Celsius are required to get a net energy output. This feat was first achieved by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in December 2022.
Their experiment yielded a net 700 kilojoules of energy – enough to run an average toaster for about 20 minutes.
UNSW’s first fusion-capable machine will be a 1-metre-wide tokamak. The name is derived from the Russian acronym for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils.”
These devices are doughnut-shaped vacuum chambers with powerful magnets which guide and heat streams of plasma to generate extremely high temperatures.
This may be followed up by the creation of another device to achieve fusion through lasers, as was done at the LLNL.
The purpose of the project is to research methods by which nuclear engineers can sustain the extreme conditions required for fusion for hours or days at a time.
How the project will help
The program is being supported by industry partners the UK-based Tokamak Energy and Australian companyHB-11 Energy. Not only is it important energy research, but Burr says it will help the students develop important and transferrable skills.
“The students involved in this project will have to develop solutions to big engineering challenges, work closely with industry partners, and push the boundaries of what is possible with fusion energy. They will have to master skills that are also highly sought after in other industries, like safety-critical infrastructure, transportation, outer space, and of course conventional nuclear technologies.”
Burr recognises the polarised perception of nuclear research in society.
“This is a cross-faculty project, including academics from social sciences and arts, and our VIP students will study and analyse what the public perception of fusion technology really is and discover how best we can engage with society to share the benefit it could bring.”