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Rensselaer Nuclear-Energy Pioneer Richard T. Lahey Jr. Receives Two Major Honors

Research into sonofusion continues to attract attention

By Sheila Nason

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Richard T. Lahey Jr., a pioneer in the field of nuclear reactor technology and safety who is now exploring sonofusion, a new form of nuclear fusion, has been awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Fellowship, one of the most prestigious honors given to senior researchers around the world. Lahey is the Edward Hood Jr. Professor of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

With the Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, Lahey will spend a year conducting research at FZK, the German National Nuclear Energy Laboratory, in Karlsruhe, Germany, located near the Black Forest. Although his research will continue on sonofusion, most of his time will be spent working with German scientists on an advanced concept for a nuclear fission reactor.

In another major honor, Nuclear Engineering & Design journal has published a special edition in recognition of Professor Lahey’s 65th birthday. This Festschrift edition (a collection of articles to honor a scholar) includes keynote lectures delivered in a special symposium held on Sept. 25, 2004 in Pisa, Italy, in honor of Lahey’s birthday, as well as selected papers from the International Symposium on Two-Phase Flow Modeling and Experimentation in Pisa Sept. 20-24, 2004.

The symposium and the special edition were organized by Lahey’s former Ph.D. students, Paolo DiMarco, associate professor of engineering at the University of Pisa, and Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, the Ardent Bement Jr. Professor of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University. Taleyarkhan also announced that a new “non-dimensional” number, the Lahey number, LT, is being dedicated to Lahey. This number defines the onset of explosions during entrapment of vaporizing fluids in molten liquid, a number of enormous safety significance for metal casting operations where explosions are a common threat and for severe nuclear reactor accident evaluations.

The dedication in the Festschrift edition recognizes Lahey as “a pioneer in the science and technology of multiphase flow and heat transfer.” It further states: “Dr. Lahey is one of the founding fathers and architects responsible for formulating the thermal analysis and licensing bases for boiling water nuclear reactors (BWRs), which account for a significant fraction of the world’s electricity-producing nuclear power reactors. His pioneering work has covered the thermal-hydraulics of the stability of BWRs, simulations and experimentation related to severe accidents in nuclear reactors during hypothetical accidents, the multidimensional computational simulation of multiphase systems, and the revolutionary and potentially paradigm-shift inducing technology of what is now called bubble nuclear fusion (i.e., sonofusion), in which conditions prevalent in the interior of the stars are created within imploding cavitation bubbles.”

In a review article in the May 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum, Lahey, Taleyarkhan, and Robert Nigmatulin, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, described their successful efforts to use sound waves to create nuclear fusion in a glass flask. Although much more research is needed if sonofusion reactors are ever to produce usable quantities of power, Lahey says, the process might become a major energy source that operates without the potentially dangerous radioactive waste or decay heat that is produced by nuclear fission reactors. In the article, the authors suggest possible methods for scaling-up the process and making it self-sustaining.

Other efforts to create nuclear fusion, which use strong magnetic fields or large lasers to contain the plasma in which the fusion occurs, so far have failed to produce more energy than they use. In the new sonofusion process, acetone, in which most of the hydrogen is in the form of deuterium, is placed in a glass flask. The rapid contractions and expansions of a piezoelectric ceramic ring on the outside of the flask send pressure waves through the liquid. At points of low pressure, the liquid is bombarded with neutrons, creating clusters of bubbles. These bubbles greatly expand during the low-pressure conditions, and then, as the pressure begins to increase again, they implode, sending shock waves toward the center of the bubbles. This creates very high pressures and temperatures in an extremely small region of the collapsing bubbles. Careful measurements show that deuterium atoms located there have fused, releasing additional neutrons into the liquid and creating tritium.

A research team led by Taleyarkhan, Lahey, and Nigmatulin first announced successful sonofusion in the March 2002 issue of Science. Their paper was met with much skepticism in the scientific community. In March 2004, the team members announced in Phys. Rev. E that they had duplicated the results using much more sensitive instrumentation. At least five other research groups are now trying to reproduce the results, and one of them (Xu et al, NE&D, 235, 2005) has recently announced independent confirmation. Earlier this year, an Acoustic Fusion Technology Energy Consortium (AFTEC) was founded to explore the potential of sonofusion. Thus, in addition to Rensselaer, Purdue, and the Russian Academy of Sciences, the members of the consortium who are interested in developing sonofusion include Boston University, UCLA, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Washington.

Lahey joined the Rensselaer faculty in 1975 and has served as chairman of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Science, president of the Faulty Senate, and dean of Engineering. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Russian Academy of Sciences and is a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and the American Society for Mechanical Engineers. He has received numerous honors, and he consults frequently with industry and government organizations. He has supervised 44 doctoral and 30 master’s students.

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