Monday, September 14, 2015

Douglas College Chemistry student focuses on clean energy alternatives

A Douglas College student and research assistant is at the helm of a project that is contributing to the progress of clean fusion energy ­– and it all begins with a “star.”

Randall Volberg, in collaboration with Douglas College Chemistry Chair Brenda Addison-Jones and Physics instructor Nakul Verma, has created an Inertial Electrostatic Confinement fusion (IEC) device known as a “fusor.” The fusor – not to be confused with a reactor used in nuclear fission - is a fusion-capable reactor modeled after a design outlined in an issue of Make Magazine.

“I’ve been interested in alternative energy since completing a project in Grade 3,” Volberg said. “I did a report on energy, which included wind, solar and fusion. So I thought, ‘when I’m an adult, we’re going to have fusion everything!’

“Things haven’t quite worked out that way, but then I saw (Burnaby-based company) General Fusion on the scene and that reignited my interest.”

The aim of the project is to use the fusor as an educational tool and to conduct research at the College that supports international efforts to realize a commercial fusion reactor for clean, cheap and inexhaustible power for the future.

“It’s the cleanest energy you can get,” Volberg said. “It has none of the downsides of fission reactors – there is no long-term radioactive waste or risk of a meltdown.

“Fusion is clean. The fuel comes from sea water and doesn’t emit any pollution or greenhouse emissions.”

The mobile fusor in jet mode.
The mobile fusor uses an electric field to heat deuterium ions to conditions suitable for nuclear fusion. There are three main modes: halo, jet, and the coveted “star mode” – the state when fusion occurs and releases energy. Volberg and his team have so far achieved halo and jet mode, with star mode expected this month.

As a result of the reaction, the fusor has been aptly dubbed a “star in a jar.”

“The idea is that it will be a demonstration unit that we can literally roll into the classroom, whether it’s physics or chemistry, and explain the process and get students really excited about what may be renewable energy in the future,” Addison-Jones explained. “It’s been a long time coming, but there are a lot of people working on this. Though it’s small scale, there are big things going on.”

The project, which launched last fall, has also been supported by Kyle MacDonald and Arsalan Hammoodi, both students of the Chem 2400 program, Addison-Jones notes. And now, with construction of the fusor completed, the next milestone is to replace the common metal cathodes with carbon nanotubes, now possible due to recent breakthroughs in their production. Obtained from a research partner in Europe, the carbon nanotubes may boost energy output and better withstand the extreme conditions during fusion.

“Currently fusors generate much less than one percent of the energy they consume,” Volberg said. “We’re looking to improve that. The project has been an amazing learning experience.”

Both Volberg and Addison-Jones noted that none of this work would have been possible without grants received from the College.

“We’re so grateful for funding from the College, which allows us to do this innovative work,” Addison-Jones said.