Nuclear fusion show draws youthful crowds in Antwerp

Fanders Today Senne Starckx, Nov. 20, 2015

A science show that aims to pique students’ interest in nuclear fusion recently returned to the University of Antwerp for the fifth consecutive year

Do you have a teenager who is bored with traditional physics, Newton’s laws and those same-old electronic circuits? Then nuclear fusion might be just for them.

Fusion, the counterpart of nuclear fission (the atom splitting that powers our nuclear plants) has been heralded as an inexhaustible energy source of the future for some decades now. A fusion reaction happens when deuterium and tritium atoms melt together to form helium and neutrons – and a huge amount of heat when these neutrons hit the reactor wall.

But scientists and engineers have yet to prove that a fusion reaction can be sustained long enough for it to be used as a reliable energy source. The world’s biggest fusion reactor, ITER, is currently under construction in the south of France. Starting in 2024, the international fusion community wants to start conducting experiments with this huge reactor.

In the meantime, the fusion community will have to ensure that there will be enough scientists and engineers to follow in their footsteps in 10 or 20 years. That’s why Dutch fusion communication specialists recently gathered at Antwerp University (UAntwerp) to inspire students from no less than 80 secondary schools across Flanders to consider a career in nuclear fusion.

Magic meets science

This is the fifth consecutive year that the university is hosting this Dutch-born Fusieshow (Fusion Show), and the event continues to have huge appeal. More than 3,600 students in the fifth and sixth year of secondary school attended one of the five recent shows at UAntwerp.

Energy technology is still a kind of illegitimate child in scientific subjects at school


Last week’s edition was set up as an interactive experience that let the students follow the development of an imaginary fusion plant. Their paragon was the sun – the only working fusion plant in our solar system (so far).

Arian Visser from the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research explored the basic principles behind a fusion reactor in a presentation that used both elements of the performing arts and magic shows.

The Fusieshow boasted one new segment compared to past editions – a session that shed light on the wider energy technology landscape of today as well as the major energy supply challenges our society faces in moving toward wide adoption of fusion energy. This session was presented by Christian Dierick, ITER industry liaison officer at Agoria, the umbrella organisation of Belgium’s technology industry.

“The goal was to acquaint students with the odds and ends of modern-day energy policies,” says Dierick. “We have noticed that energy technology is still a kind of illegitimate child in scientific subjects at school. You could say that our school’s educational programmes don’t do enough to make our youth ‘energy wise’.”

For Dierick, fusion is an inherently sustainable source of energy. But he also realises that commercial exploitation will not be for tomorrow. “When I discuss the energy supply in a certain country or region, I always emphasise the importance of having a well-balanced energy mix. Nuclear fusion might be the ultimate technology, but, until we can control it, we have to rely on other sources, like solar and wind energy, and possibly also nuclear fission or even fossil fuels.”