Scientific Research and our Future

There is considerable criticism of government spending, where much of the criticism is justified.

One area of government spending that frequently deserves support rather than condemnation is fundamental scientific research.

I believe it was President Reagan who said: “It is the place of government to support fundamental scientific research, but not applied research that leads to commercialization. Applied research leading to commercialization is the province of industry.”

An example of fundamental research might be the work being discussed at the Fermi National Laboratory, near Chicago.

Last week, while I was with a group attending a meeting at Fermi Lab, Dr. Christopher Hill discussed Project X, which would be a high-tech proton accelerator, generating high-intensity beams for use in particle physics research.

Such an intense beam, however, could also become the “proton gun” that could drive a safe and controllable nuclear reaction for power generation using the very abundant element Thorium.

Shooting protons into Thorium through a sequence of reactions would release neutrons that could sustain a nuclear reaction, until the proton “gun” is shut-off, which stops the reaction.

This would be a controllable reaction, which would eliminate the fear of a nuclear accident.

Turn on the “gun” to start the reaction – turn off the “gun” to stop the reaction.

Thorium would be far superior to uranium for use in nuclear reactors for generating electricity. Thorium is widely available, perhaps a thousand times more plentiful than fissionable uranium ore. Also, a thorium reactor wouldn’t produce the highly radioactive by-products that are produced by uranium reactors, such as highly toxic plutonium.

The proton “gun” would eliminate the need to use plutonium in nuclear reactors altogether.

Project X is still only a proposal. Time will tell whether money becomes available to fund the research.

Fundamental research such as Project X cannot be done by industry. It is too expensive, costing billions, with no certainty of success. Yet, fundamental scientific research is vital to maintaining the United States’ lead in science, medicine and industry.

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