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Friday, May 24, 2024

UW nuclear fusion celebrates milestone

UW-Madison produces 400th Ph.D. graduate from department

Nuclear fusion education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has reached a major milestone after the graduation of the 400th Ph.D. student since the start of the program in 1963. While the number of people researching nuclear fusion is relatively small at UW-Madison, the university is consistently one of the strongest fusion programs in the country.

Nuclear fusion is a way to produce energy in which atomic nuclei with low atomic numbers fuse to form a heavier nucleus while releasing energy. Fusion has a lot of potential as a future energy source, however the technology is not currently developed enough for mass use.

According to professor of nuclear engineering Gerald Kulcinski, UW-Madison faculty and students are focused on “building a bridge between where we’re at today and where we want to get to in terms of fusion energy down the line.”

UW-Madison’s nuclear fusion department is nationally recognized for its strength and breadth. According to Kulcinski, the reason for this strength is because UW-Madison offers its students the chance to study fusion from a theoretical, experimental or technological aspect. Other programs do not provide the same kind of options, often focusing on just one of the three areas of fusion study.

After graduating, UW-Madison alumni have spread out all over the globe to work toward making fusion possible for the near future. “Graduates fall roughly into three areas: academia, national laboratories and industry,” Kulcinski said.

There are some setbacks for someone looking to study nuclear fusion, however. Because the use of fusion as an energy source is only a future prospect, funding for research is more often given to people studying another type of nuclear energy in which nuclei are split, called fission.

According to Kulcinski, fission presents many problems because the time it takes for half the mass of the radioactive materials to decompose —its half-life—is very long, taking thousands of years to become non-radioactive. Fission is also not as stable as fusion because it produces energy through chain reactions, meaning it’s more prone to accidental releases. Despite these problems, fission still produces approximately 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States from nuclear power plants around the country.

For these reasons scientists, like those at UW-Madison, keep trying to develop the availability of fusion. In regard to the comparison between fusion and fission research, Kulcinski said, “It’s like the Model T and the Lexus. We’re working on developing the Lexus when everyone else is still fixing the Model T.”

The impact of fusion energy is thought to be seen towards the middle to end of the century, according to Kulcinski. How soon science gets to this point depends on work done by people such as those at UW-Madison on advancing the theoretical, experimental and technological aspects of nuclear fusion knowledge.

“The promise that we’re aiming for is to make nuclear energy long-lasting, safe and economical, with no nuclear waste,” Kulcinski said about the goals of fusion research. “We’re not there but that’s what we’re working towards and that’s what the students are working on.”

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