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Student operated tokamak nuclear fusion device to be built at UNSW Sydney

A nuclear fusion device – that will be wholly designed, built and operated by students – is being planned for UNSW Sydney. 

The program is part of the University’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) scheme that is designed to engage undergraduate and postgraduate students in long-term, and multidisciplinary challenges led by UNSW academics.

The fusion construction project is headed up by nuclear engineering expert Dr. Patrick Burr and he aims to have a working device operating within two to three years.

“This project will be the first in the world where students will design, build and manage a fusion reactor,” he said.

“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 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.”

UNSW’s first fusion-capable machine will be a ‘tokamak’ device – a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber with powerful magnets to control and heat streams of plasma to extreme temperatures, at which point nuclear fusion is possible.

Many research universities around the world already operate traditional fission reactors for training of nuclear engineers, materials testing, or the production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry.

Fusion is relatively safe since the process is not based on a chain reaction, whereas nuclear fission is.

Dr. Burr says that nuclear energy can be polarising.

“It can be seen as an energy amplifier, rather than an energy generator, so when you turn off the switch there is nothing to amplify and the device shuts down, just like a lightbulb,” he said.

“The tokamak device is small, around 1 metre by 1 metre, and during the initial build and testing the biggest risk is dealing with high voltages, which is a well-known hazard in our labs, for which we have special cages to keep everything very safe.”

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