Advanced Nuclear Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Challenge 7: Identify a new and practical application of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind.
Although nuclear phenomena have been understood only over the course of the last century or so, the applications of nuclear technology have been widespread. They include the following:
Medical diagnosis and therapy
Energy production for electricity generation, district heating, process heat, propulsion systems, and desalinization.
Sterilizing medical equipment
Scientific research ranging from tracers to sample dating
Propulsion and station energy for space craft
Controlling insect infestations
Nondestructive testing and examination
These applications are diverse, but most of them were developed many decades ago. Although there have been both incremental and significant advances, the fundamental applications of nuclear technology have not expanded to new spheres.
Over this same period there have been great advances in the application of science. For example, in recent decades there have been extraordinary advances in the application of materials sciences, including the development of nanomaterials, materials with greatly enhanced properties, novel fabrication techniques, and more. At the same time, bioengineering has emerged as a powerful vehicle for many advances in medicine, food and energy production. Computational capacities have expanded greatly in ways that enable the understanding, design, fabrication, and control of systems in ways that were not previously conceivably.
Given that great advances in one technology often arise from the application of advances in others, the question arises: are there practical applications of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind that are now feasible, but that have not been previously exploited or perhaps even been contemplated? The focus here is less on exploring potential future applications that already have had established programs (e.g. fusion, fast reactors, transmutation of waste) than on identifying new, innovative applications that may now become practical due to advances in enabling technologies.
Is there a practical application of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind that has not previously been exploited?
What advances, if any, are necessary in order to enable that application? What advantages for the achievement of the function does nuclear technology provide over other alternatives? What risks?
How can we galvanize research and development to explore and exploit these promising applications?
How can we attract and retain the best of the coming generation to address these opportunities?
Constable G and Somerville B. A century of innovation: twenty engineering achievements that transformed our lives. J. Henry Press: Washington DC, 2003.