Fukushima. Chernobyl. Nuclear fuel has a long, fraught history. More expensive than coal, and more dangerous than oil. A litany of reasons prevents the United States from producing nuclear energy at the capacity of certain European countries, and from expanding one of the most efficient—and domestic—forms of energy production.
However, a three-man team of physicists at the University of Texas believe they may have uncovered a solution to one of the largest roadblocks in nuclear fuel production: how to properly remove the waste that remains after processing the fuel.
UT researchers Mike Kotschenreuther, Prashant Valanju, and Swadesh Mahajan obtained a patent in August in relation to their work on pairing nuclear fusion and fission in order to incinerate nuclear waste. The process, for lay observers, is deceptively simple: fission produces energy through the splitting of atomic nuclei, while fusion fuses the nuclei. As Mahajan explained, the fusion process’s neutrons—”beasties,” as he termed them—would be able to destroy radioactive waste created during the fission production of electricity.
The innovation, called a Super X Divertor, will provide nuclear physicists a way to create a compact, on-site method for destroying the waste that has long caused headaches for both scientists and bureaucrats. Using a tokamak device, which utilizes magnetic fields to create fusion reactions, the Super X Divertor could alleviate one of the longest-standing issues with nuclear energy: where to deposit the sludge.
The Yucca Mountains—which would lead to a “potential plutonium mine that would last thousands of years,” Mahajan has said—have long been bandied as a potential dumping site, but the UT team’s technology may yet prevent any large-scale refuse.
While they’ve obtained the patent, the physicists said the Super X Divertor will likely not be ready for experimentation until 2015. The new technology will be installed as part of a $40 million upgrade to a tokamak in the UK, which should allow the scientists to then monitor early results.
“The potential for this kind of technology is enormous,” Mahajan told R&D magazine. “Now that we have the patent, we hope this will open up opportunities to engage with the research and development community to further this potentially world-changing technology.”