Posted on: 7th October 2015

Mike Dunne’s decision to take up fusion research was rather accidental. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and physics, Mike was on the hunt for suitable PhD options when his professor informed him about a position in plasma physics. “Since I was planning on studying some kind of fluid or plasma physics anyway, it wasn’t such a big jump,” he says. Mike went on to obtain his PhD in plasma physics from the University College Cork, Ireland, and is currently a EUROfusion fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, Garching, Germany.

For Mike, now is perhaps the most exciting time to be involved in fusion research. “[Y]ou’re right on the edge of everything, … the subject is growing rapidly around you as ITER is being built, as plans for demonstration reactors are being made, and [it is exciting] knowing that you’re right in the middle of it, trying to figure out some of the key issues and understand what’s going on.”

Being part of something that could be a potential game-changer in the energy landscape is exciting in itself, but for a physicist, fusion research can be truly fascinating. From understanding how to accurately control and manipulate plasmas, which are ten times hotter than the Sun, to working out optimal design parameters of future fusion plant needs, there is plenty going on in what can be broadly called fusion physics. But, Mike focuses on the very edge of the plasma.

He works on what is known as boundary physics, or simply put, what happens at the plasma edge in a fusion experiment. “There are two separate parts here,” he explains, “one of which is inside the confined plasma, and one which is outside. The inside layer is quite narrow, only 2 cm over a 50 cm plasma radius, but separates a tremendous amount of heat from the inside (where fusion will happen) and the colder outside, where the machine walls are. The layer outside of the confined plasma is where particles and heat are ‘exhausted’ from the plasma and pumped away.”

The heat contained in the inner layer is directly proportional to fusion power that can be extracted from an eventual power plant. “What I’ve been working on lately is how these two [layers] interact with each other, doing both experiments and modelling of this,” he adds. And, of course it follows that understanding this interaction is quite important as it will influence the design and operational conditions of future fusion power plants.

Because of growing anticipation and excitement about fusion power and technology, Mike says that the fusion community in Europe has become vibrant and integrated. “There are a lot more opportunities for communication, for discussing your results and ideas with other people,” he informs. “Science is based on collaboration and communication so, apart from data analysis, setting up experiments and programming reading other people’s papers, listening to talks and lectures, preparing posters and talks for conferences are all part of a typical day,” he says. “All that and coffee…coffee is definitely involved.”