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New Zealand scientist to research nuclear energy

Young New Zealand scientist to research the future of nuclear energy

A Dunedin student with a view of a clean and safe nuclear-powered future has been recognised as one of the world’s top young scientists, and will complete a PhD at a leading American university thanks to his selection for a prestigious International Fulbright Science and Technology Award. Only 40 of the awards are presented worldwide each year, to top students from participating countries in the Fulbright exchange programme.

University of Otago honours student Jonathan Squire was selected from over 150 nominees put forward by 76 countries for 2010 International Fulbright Science and Technology Awards. Jonathan’s award will fund the full costs of completing a five year PhD in the United States of America, where he plans to research energy production by nuclear fusion – a process in which the nuclei of atoms are fused together, releasing enormous amounts of energy, as occurs naturally in the core of the Sun. Unlike traditional nuclear energy production by nuclear fission (splitting of atoms), the developing technology of nuclear fusion promises a future of clean, sustainable and reliable energy with very little resource depletion, and is seen as one possible solution to the looming energy crisis caused by the depletion of fossil fuels.

As Jonathan explains, the US is a powerhouse in the international field of nuclear fusion research: “The nature of fusion research means the experiments are complex, with many components, and therefore very costly. Much of the research is conducted by large, multidisciplinary teams, and consequently no experiments are currently taking place in New Zealand. I’m hoping to study at either Princeton University or MIT, both of which have strong graduate programmes in the area of fusion research and seem to be really exciting and vibrant places to study.”

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He estimates that it “will probably be 40 or 50 years or so before fusion becomes a commercially viable energy option,” and says that while the technology is unlikely to be needed in New Zealand, it could offer greater security of power supply. “Fusion offers incredible promise in the production of clean energy and has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce power. New Zealand is in the enviable position of having plentiful resources for sustainable power generation. However, there are some large difficulties with the volatility and unpredictability of conventional renewable energy sources (solar, wind etc.) and fusion power promises to overcome these.”


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