UNSW Sydney to house world’s first student-built nuclear fusion device

Dr Patrick Burr from the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering is heading up the nuclear fusion student project. Image credit: UNSW Sydney

UNSW Sydney will soon be home to the world’s first-ever nuclear fusion device to be wholly designed, manufactured, and managed by students. 

The fusion construction project is part of UNSW’s Vertically Integrated Projects scheme, which is designed to engage undergraduate and postgraduate students in ambitious, long-term multidisciplinary challenges led by UNSW academics. 

Led by nuclear engineering expert Dr Patrick Burr from the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, the project expects to have a working device operating within two to three years, UNSW said in a media release

The machine will be “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber equipped with powerful magnets to control and heat streams of plasma to extreme temperatures, at which point nuclear fusion is possible. The project aims to create other devices that could achieve fusion using different methods, such as 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 Dr Burr. “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.”

Thermonuclear fusion is a process where atomic nuclei are massively heated up, typically to up to 150 million to 300 million degrees Celsius, and then fused together under substantial force, releasing a large amount of energy in the process. 

If successfully harnessed, the process could potentially provide clean and abundant energy on Earth. 

However, creating and maintaining the extreme conditions of heat and pressure required for atomic nuclei to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together poses a great challenge. 

Fusion energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, with a significant amount of work going on around the world to harness fusion as a future clean energy resource. 

The program is being supported by industry partners Toakamak Energy and HB-11 Energy. 

The UNSW team will work closely with the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office to ensure the project’s compliance with all regulations. 

The tokamak device will be housed at UNSW’s main Kensington campus.