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When discovery and collaboration collide

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‘Atomic collision theory’ might sound like a term that belongs within the confines of a science lab, when in reality, it’s relevant to everyone. It occurs all around us; within every living room and office, to the outer regions of space, and even inside our bodies. Professor Igor Bray, Head of Curtin’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is a world-leader and researcher in the field and has spent his career endeavouring to demystify atomic collision theory. He’s spent decades gathering important data and developing calculations that inform others within a range of related fields, and provide solutions for the obstacles faced in health, energy and space exploration.

Professor Igor Bray standing at white board writing formulas.
Professor Igor Bray.

“Collisions are something that happen all around us, all the time. They enable life, control and affect temperature, and are responsible for all chemical reactions. When two particles come together, they might stick to each other, bounce of each other; all sorts of things can happen when particles collide. And because they happen anywhere and everywhere, there is no shortage of applications that benefit from their quantitative understanding. We have to solve problems associated with these collisions”, Bray explains.

He has already significantly impacted the field through the development of the Convergent Close-Coupling (CCC) theory. The accuracy of this unifying theory was so great that on several occasions it showed existing experiments to be incorrect, and now astrophysicists, laser physicists, fusion researchers and the lighting industry extensively use the CCC-calculated data.

Bray’s previous research has also provided data for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a $30 billion fusion facility based in France that aims to demonstrate an environmentally sustainable, safe method of generating energy through nuclear fusion.

“The goal of the reactor is basically to replicate the core of the sun – the source of all light that we see – to generate abundant clean energy with sea water as fuel. The aim is to generate ten times more energy than what is put in”, says Bray.

“Taking heavy hydrogen that can be found in sea water and fusing them together releases a lot of energy. Inside this reactor there will be a lot of collisions going on, there will be temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees, and lots of things will be colliding. And the researchers need to be aware of all of the possible collisions that go on inside the reactor, so that they know how much energy they need to provide in order to ignite the plasma.”

Future research projects are on the horizon, with Bray and his team recently securing a partnership with Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicists to explore the atomic collisions occurring in space.

“Collisions not only happen on Earth but they also happen out in space. We’ll work with international colleagues, funded by NASA, and study collisions that occur out in space to determine the abundance of various elements and the temperatures of galaxies. Because these collisions underpin so much of the Universe, if you understand them in a quantitative sense, then you can learn a great deal about the Universe in which these collisions occur”, explains Bray.

Future proposed projects will also provide calculations that will help inform proton therapy, an emerging method of cancer therapy that bombards tumours with protons. It delivers the destructive energy of the projectiles specifically to the tumour, eliminating many of the side effects typically associated with conventional x-ray radiation therapy.

Bray attributes much of his success to the many partnerships and collaborations he’s fostered throughout his career, and believes they have created a cooperative spirit between physicists at Curtin, Murdoch University and The University of Western Australia.

“Nobody does anything on their own … we all work in teams. Nothing is ever done by a single individual; science progresses through the work of others.”

 

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

Curtin’s discipline area of Physics and Astronomy works closely with the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy (CIRA), which focuses on scientific and technological advances in the field, and is involved in the Square Kilometre Array and the Murchison Widefield Array, as well as the investigation of active galactic nuclei and radio galaxies, transient radio phenomena and pulsars.

In the Australian Government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) 2015 assessment, Curtin University ranked well above world standard for astronomical and space sciences.

Physics graduates have some of the most exciting jobs throughout their careers. Their problem-solving skills, enhanced by the study of theoretical and practical physics, together with strengths in mathematics and computing, make them highly sought after by many employers.

Possible careers include:

  • Astronomer
  • Materials scientist
  • Meteorologist
  • Computational physicist
  • Radiation physicist

See more at Curtin Open Day!

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If you’re interested in a career in physics, come to Curtin Open Day and get information on the many pathways and opportunities available to graduates in physics. Witness quantum mechanics in action, produce holograms and find out how hydrogen could be the answer to clean energy.

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