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UNSW Students Pioneering Sustainable Energy

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The University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney is embarking on an ambitious venture to create the first-ever nuclear fusion device, completely designed, constructed, and operated by students. This initiative falls under UNSW’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) programme, which seeks to engage undergraduate and postgraduate students in complex, interdisciplinary challenges led by UNSW faculty members.

The project is led by Dr Patrick Burr, an expert in nuclear engineering. The team’s goal is to develop a functional fusion device within the next two to three years. At its core, thermonuclear fusion involves heating atomic nuclei to incredibly high temperatures, typically ranging from 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius, and forcing them to merge under immense pressure, resulting in the release of substantial energy. This process mirrors the mechanism powering the sun and holds the promise of providing a clean and abundant energy source for Earth if harnessed successfully.

Fusion energy is gaining momentum as one of the fastest-growing sectors globally, with significant research efforts worldwide to harness it as a clean energy resource. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers conventional nuclear power plants by splitting heavy elements like uranium, fusion combines light elements readily available on our planet, such as hydrogen or boron. Importantly, fusion doesn’t rely on a chain reaction, and its by-product is helium, an inert gas with various valuable applications.

Nonetheless, creating and maintaining the extreme conditions of heat and pressure required for atomic nuclei to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together is an extraordinary engineering challenge. UNSW’s maiden fusion-capable device will be a “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber equipped with potent magnets to control and heat plasma streams to the extreme temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion.

This initial tokamak could potentially be followed by other devices employing diverse fusion methods, such as high-power lasers. The programme receives support from the UNSW Digital Grid Future Institute and industry partners Tokamak Energy and HB-11 Energy.

Dr Burr, a faculty member at the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, expressed, “This project will be the first in the world where students will design, build, and manage a fusion reactor. We want to excite the next generation of innovators and make them realise how they can make a big change in the world.”

The students involved in this groundbreaking project will be tasked with devising solutions to substantial engineering challenges, collaborating closely with industry partners, and pushing the boundaries of what is achievable with fusion energy. The skills they develop will be highly sought-after not only in the field of fusion but also in safety-critical infrastructure, transportation, space exploration, and conventional nuclear technologies.

Several research universities worldwide, including those in Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, and the USA, currently operate traditional fission reactors for purposes like training nuclear engineers, materials testing, and the production of radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications. In contrast, fusion is widely regarded as inherently safe, given that it doesn’t rely on a chain reaction, as is the case with nuclear fission.

Dr Burr clarified, stating that the device can be viewed as an energy enhancer, rather than an energy originator. Consequently, when the device is powered down, there is nothing to enhance, leading to an automatic shutdown, akin to turning off a light bulb. Although the VIP project’s objective is to construct a fusion-capable apparatus, there are no plans to initiate hydrogen fusion once it’s completed.

Scientists have spent decades conducting fusion experiments to comprehend the prerequisites for achieving fusion, even for a fleeting moment. Now that these requirements are understood, the challenge lies in engineering solutions to sustain these extreme conditions for extended periods, possibly hours or even days. The objective is not to induce fusion but to maintain a plasma at temperatures in the millions of degrees Celsius without damaging sensitive components.

Therefore, the student-built device will operate without introducing any fuel capable of initiating a fusion reaction. Nevertheless, UNSW will collaborate closely with regulatory authorities such as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) to ensure full compliance with all safety regulations.

Dr Burr provided assurance, stating that the tokamak device has compact dimensions, measuring approximately one meter by one meter. In the early stages of construction and testing, the primary concern revolves around managing high voltages, a well-recognised hazard in our laboratories. To address this concern, we have implemented specific safety protocols to minimise the associated risks.

Recognising that innovative technology in the nuclear domain can be contentious, Dr Burr emphasised that they are proactively addressing the societal impact of this project. The initiative encompasses a cross-faculty approach, involving academics from social sciences and arts. VIP students will analyse public perceptions of fusion technology and explore ways to engage with society to communicate its potential benefits.

In summary, UNSW’s groundbreaking fusion project represents an exciting endeavour that could shape the future of clean and abundant energy. Led by students and supported by industry partners, this initiative pushes the boundaries of engineering, safety, and public engagement. While challenges remain, the potential benefits of successful fusion technology are vast, offering hope for a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.


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