It is possible to create a star on earth with a nuclear fusion device, with the H1-Heliac at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering doing just this. The research school is also turning out rising-star graduates that are becoming influential scientists around the world, particularly within the United States’ largest fusion program.
Energy pundits see nuclear fusion as the Holy Grail. Unlike nuclear fission, nuclear fusion occurs in nature—it powers the sun and all of the stars in the universe. And it has the potential to provide sustainable, zero-emission and relatively cheap power to grids around the world.
China, the European Union, India, Korea, Russia and the United States all agree that nuclear fusion has great potential to be a major power source for future generations. The global heavyweights are jointly funding the construction of the ITER nuclear fusion demonstration facility in France that will start producing 500 megawatts of power by the late 2020s.
You would be optimistic to expect fusion to be a viable baseload power source by 2050, but ‘89 ANU PhD graduate Dr Raffi Nazikian believes it is possible, as long as there is national and international will to develop the energy source. He is leading the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s research at the DIII-D National Facility at General Atomics in San Diego, which houses the United State’s largest nuclear fusion device.
“We have to be ready with viable proposals when the opportunity arises,” Dr Nazikian says.
Several other PhD graduates from the Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility (APFRF) at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering have followed in Dr Nazikian’s footsteps to work on DIII-D: Dr Dmitri Rudakov (’95), Dr Wayne Solomon (’05), Dr Fenton Glass (’05), Dr Shaun Haskey (’15) and Dr Cameron Samuell (’15). In terms of national representation at DIII-D, Australia is punching well above its weight.
DIII-D is a tokamak, which is a donut-shaped magnetic vessel that can recreate the energy processes that power a star. Scientists pump hydrogen isotopes into the tokamak and then inject it with extreme power—including radio waves, microwaves and particle beams—so that the hydrogen starts to fuse under the enormous pressure to produce helium. In the process, neutrons are released that carry huge amounts of energy. A neutron is a neutral particle, so it can escape from the magnetic field and its energy can be converted into electricity.
As you can imagine, the tokamak is a hard beast to tame. The temperatures inside the tokamak are hotter than the centre of the sun, so the exhaust that escapes from it can cause serious damage to the walls around it. This is just one of many very challenging fusion problems, but Dr Nazikian says the ANU alumni mentioned above are some of the most capable scientists that he’s encountered and so they are well-equipped to tackle these challenges.
ContactProfessor John Howard