Imagine powering the entire United States for 10,000 years using only the top quarter inch of water from the ocean – this is a future reality made possible with nuclear fusion.
Peter de Vietien, a graduate student studying nuclear engineering, and Chris Smith, a senior in the School of Nuclear Engineering, have begun Purdue’s Fusion Awareness Organization to educate Purdue students, local high school students and the general public on the benefits and misconceptions of nuclear fusion.
The organization is also developing a small scale fusion reactor on campus that is expected to be completed by next semester. Often confused with nuclear fission, nuclear fusion is actually much safer and only produces one-thousandth the radioactive waste of nuclear fission.
De Vietien explained the biggest issue with developing nuclear fusion on a commercial scale is a lack of focus and funding.
“There are many different designs (for fusion reactors) but we keep putting all of our eggs in one basket,” said de Vietien. “There’s 10 different reactors that are very promising but there’s no funding to build them. For all we know, the next generation of one of those 10 could be (successful).”
Nuclear fusion was discovered before nuclear fission, but it was difficult to obtain. It was also easier to weaponize fission, which was a priority during the time each was discovered. De Vietien explained one third of the United States’ budget was allocated to developing fission for the Manhattan Project, and if those funds were spent on researching and creating fusion, it would be commercially produced today.
The benefits of fusion include an unlimited fuel supply, no environmental impact from oil spills, mining or greenhouse gasses and no chance of reactor meltdown. There would also be a reduction in geopolitical conflicts over energy and a huge increase in the difficulty of producing nuclear weapons. A major waste product, helium-3, can also be harvested and sold for around $50,000 per kilogram due to a world helium shortage.
“What happened at Fukushima is impossible (for fusion),” said de Vietien. “It’s not a technical thing. By the physics of fusion, it’s impossible for (an explosion) to happen.”
The organization also aims to provide public speaking skills for its members so engineers can properly communicate to the public information regarding nuclear fusion. Smith used the Three Mile Island incident, a reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania, as an example of companies providing faulty information.
“Most of the time it was a spokesperson (presenting information), not an engineer. They weren’t telling (the public) what they needed to know,” said Smith. “You’re going to have radiation get into the water, but it’s so small it’s not going to hurt anything. Did (the public) know that? No.”
Norman Augustine, a previous president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, an advanced technology company, recently stated in a Forbes magazine article he believes nuclear fusion could be achieved commercially in 10 years if backed by proper funding and support by the American public. Purdue’s Fusion Awareness Organization hopes to help this vision become a reality.
“People need to understand what the reason for doing this is. It’s a huge investment and you have to know why you’re making that investment ... otherwise you won’t make it,” said de Vietien.
In the future, the Fusion Awareness Organization plans on holding more seminars, creating YouTube videos, writing Wikipedia entries and finishing the construction of Purdue’s small scale fusion reactor. To learn more about the organization and how you can get involved, visit purduefao.com.