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A travelling wave is one of two kinds of waves observed in wave mechanics. A travelling wave is is wave observed travelling through a medium. This is basically any space containing matter in any given state. When moving, the crest of the wave will move from particle to particle from the incidence of energy transfer. An ideal travelling wave when visible will have the moving crest followed by a trough. This creates a sine wave pattern. The ideal example of a travelling wave is an ocean wave.
A key component of a travelling wave is that it must not be confined to a space in the medium it is travelling through. When this happens the wave simple reflects on itself. When done imperfectly the reflected wave will interfere with the original wave. When done at the right frequency the original wave and the reflection wave will share the same inflection points and look like a wave standing still. This is a standing wave.
There are two main types of travelling waves. They are transverse waves and longitudinal waves. Transverse waves travel perpendicular to the direction of transferred energy. Longitudinal waves travel in the same direction as the energy transferred. These two waves act differently depending on the medium they travel through.
Travelling waves represent every single type of energy from mechanical waves to electromagnetic waves. All of them work using a relatively unbounded medium as their rout of travel. Scientists have sought to find different ways to make use of travelling waves. One idea involves nuclear reactors. The problem with fission nuclear reactors is the waste they produce. The fissile material used in such reactions can only be used a certain amount of times before it simply becomes toxic waste. One idea that seeks to solve this problem is travelling wave nuclear reactors.
The idea was first proposed in the 1950s. A travelling wave nuclear reactor would use travellings waves to help revive nuclear fuel right in the reactor producing new nuclear fuel as it used it. This concept was also called a “breed and burn” reactor. However no reactors of this type have been built. However companies are still looking into the possibility of producing them.
The travelling wave nuclear reactor shows how simple scientific concepts can lead to major breakthroughs. While everyone has seen an ocean wave crashing on the seashore not many people could transfer that image to an idea that could power cities and countries.
Source: Physics Classroom