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Australia is set to become home to the world's first nuclear fusion facility designed, built, and operated by students. The project is planned by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) but will not use nuclear fuel, a press release said.
Nuclear fusion is the process where atoms of lighter elements like hydrogen are heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius to enable their fusion under large amounts of force. The process releases large amounts of energy, which can then be used to power devices and machines.
This is the same process that occurs on the sun and can potentially be used to provide carbon-free energy on the planet on demand. It is the opposite of nuclear fission, the process used in large-scale power plants today, but it is considered much safer since it does not produce radioactive waste.
The greatest challenge in nuclear fusion has been producing more energy from the reaction than is put in to create conditions required for the process. To do this, scientists have been working with high-power lasers and tokamak reactors, the latter that the UNSW students will work with.
A tokamak is the name given to a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber lined with powerful magnets. These are used to heat and control hydrogen atoms to extremely high temperatures.
The building of the reactor is part of the university's Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program that encourages students to engage in long-term and ambitious projects in collaboration with its academic supervisors. In the future, the university also plans to work with high-power lasers.
"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," said Patrick Burr, a lecturer in the Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at UNSW.
The idea of the project is not to generate fusion-based energy but to "excite the next generation of innovators" and help them realize how they can make a significant change in the world. Many universities around the globe run small reactors based on nuclear fission technology to help train nuclear engineers and for the production of isotopes for use in medicine and industry. The setup at UNSW is the first to be established for nuclear fusion technology.
The tokamak device that is being planned is rather small and only 3 X 3 feet ( 1 X 1 meter) in size. However, building the device will require the students to handle high voltages and learn skills that can be applied in areas such as safety-critical infrastructure, transportation, and outer space.
The team will also be involved in analyzing the societal impact of the technology. "Sometimes in the nuclear industry, the engineering happens, and then, almost as an afterthought, a spokesperson has to try to explain what the impacts are on society," added Burr while stating that this project will be markedly different and work on finding how the fusion industry needs to engage with the society.
The working device is expected to be operational in two to three years.