Australian undergrads take on tokamak project

June 12, 2024, 3:00PMANS Nuclear Cafe

A computer rendering of a tokamak device designed by students at the University of New South Wales. (Credit: UNSW)

A recent article on Australia’s ABC News website highlighted the work of undergraduate physics and engineering students at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to design, build, and operate their own small nuclear fusion reactor. The ambitious work, known as the AtomCraft project, is being led by associate professor Patrick Burr with the objective of producing a student-built tokamak reactor by the end of 2026.

Australia-based HB-11 Energy and U.K.-based Tokamak Energy have partnered with UNSW for the project.

Research goals: The AtomCraft project has the following research goals for participating students, according to its website:

Our team aims [to] make the world’s first fusion reactor entirely designed, built, and operated by students. And [to] do so in 2 years. You will develop innovative solutions to engineering challenges across many engineering disciplines, work closely with industry partners, and be part a vibrant team of enthusiastic and dedicated people who want to push the boundaries of what is possible with fusion energy.

This project will support R&D for several start-ups in the fast-paced world of the fusion industry, with an estimated value nearing US$1 trillion by 2040. Fusion energy is no longer a scientific curiosity, it is a real engineering solution to decarbonize our electricity. The only thing holding it back are engineering challenges, and you can help accelerate their development.

Energy democratization on its way: ABC News quotes Burr as saying, regarding the exciting promise of fusion energy, “If we could only get it, we could really solve a lot of the problems that we're currently facing . . . with energy security, climate change, universal access to energy, and democratization of energy."

For good measure, the article threw in every nuclear scientist’s favorite old chestnut: “There's a long-running joke among fusion scientists that a commercial reactor is about 30 years away. It's been about 30 years away since Australian physicist Mark Oliphant first demonstrated nuclear fusion was possible in the lab way back in the 1930s.” However, the story goes on to point out that the fusion industry is now “growing quickly, largely from investment overseas, and is slated to be worth nearly $US1 trillion by 2040.”

Australian fusion industry: Burr is interested in helping to create a vibrant fusion industry in Australia, and his students are doing their best to assist in achieving that vision. The students involved in AtomCraft are currently working on the design and production of early prototypes of custom-made components for their fusion device, including high-field electromagnets, high-voltage power units, plasma diagnostic devices, plasma control systems, and various other electronic devices and mechanical structures.

One of the AtomCraft students, Marcus Borscz, is quoted in the article as saying, “"It's crazy. We know it's crazy, we've been told it's crazy many times, but we'll give it a go and see what happens.”

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