The Lab Breakthroughs series is a collection of digital features accompanied by a Q&A from a lead researcher showcasing how innovation at National Labs have shaped our world, and how they are defining the technology of the future. The series originally appeared at Energy.gov.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist Robert McGreevy explains the accelerator’s role in the complex, seven-country consortium to develop an experimental fusion reactor. Fusion power technology is tricky, though with Oak Ridge’s help the international team anticipates the first commercial fusion energy reactor to be online by 2050.
Question: First off, for someone unfamiliar with fusion energy and its benefits — what makes the breakthrough so exciting?
Robert McGreevy: We depend on the sun, ultimately, for all our energy. If we can create fusion reactors that produce energy the same way the sun does, we’ve gone a long way in solving our growing demand for energy, for decades and even centuries to come. These reactors will use hydrogen, which we can get from water, as the fuel, so there is no worry that the fuel will run out.
Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery – whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration?
RM: Researchers for the fusion project ITER need to devise a very specialized component that will do its job and last for a long time. The Spallation Neutron Source is the only such facility in the world that creates beams of neutrons strong enough to see into this very dense and heavy material so we can study its properties and design a material that will do the job.
Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?
RM: In the 1940s, researchers at the same laboratory in Oak Ridge that the Spallation Neutron Source is now located realized that neutrons could be used to analyze materials similar to the way x-rays had been used, with some very important differences and new capabilities. That discovery, which eventually resulted in a Nobel Prize, led to the important field of neutron scattering science, which allows us to study the atomic and molecular structures and behaviors behind the properties of these advanced material.
Q: Where would I see, perhaps unknowingly, the affect of particle accelerator research in everyday life?
RM: Neutron scattering science has given materials researchers a way to study, for example, the molecular makeup of polymers, which has resulted in plastics that are stronger, weigh less, and last longer. Materials technology underpins many of the new technologies that arrive in the marketplace, and neutron analysis is an invaluable tool for the materials scientist. Small particle accelerators, which are based on the developments made at large research facilities, are increasingly used in medical treatment and diagnosis — for example PET scanning that is used for detecting certain types of cancer.
Q: Will we ever see fusion as a viable energy alternative?
RM: That is the hope behind the international ITER project. Fusion power would have many advantages. For example, unlike coal or other fossil-fuel burning power plants, fusion does not produce polluting carbon dioxide. And fossil fuels are dwindling, while fuel for fusion reactors is abundant. The fusion process, however, puts enormous strain on the materials that make up a fusion reactor. Having tools like the Spallation Neutron Source will help researchers meet these materials challenges. The project I described in the video is just one of them.
Q: For a young student (or researcher) looking to make their own breakthroughs, do you have any words of wisdom?
RM: Nearly all of the technologies that underpin the high standard of living, that we take for granted, have needed a large number of individual discoveries from fundamental research. Very few of these discoveries have been planned. Scientific discovery is today’s frontier – so “go west young man (or woman).”