Fusion bites served: mixed, blended and layered

In their own words: A Glass of Seawater is: “A light, informative, inspiring podcast all about the field of fusion energy research as seen through the eyes of PhD students from the Fusion CDT!

When the fusion community compares its most mature fusion technology, the tokamak, to a doughnut or rapid bursts in magnetic fields to fishbones, it is fair to assume that analogies are important in explaining fusion nitty-gritties. And, they become even more crucial if one has to explain fusion in all its complex glory without much visual support.

Young fusion researchers who are the brains and voices behind the podcast A Glass of Seawater know this only too well. So they use analogies in good measure and serve up a monthly episode on fusion research.

A generous helping of analogies

“We do have something called ‘show notes,’ which are basically a series of links, pictures and other information, that we put on our website for every episode. If we talk about something that especially needs visual aids, we say go look at the show notes,” says William Trickey. “But in general one just has to use analogies in podcasts.”

Andrew Malcom-Neale adds, “Learning to cope without visuals and hand gestures even is quite an important part of learning to communicate through podcasts.” And, if the recollections of the team are anything to go by, it does seem like analogies can paint vivid metal images of rather technical concepts. “My abiding memory is of the introduction to magnetic confinement fusion episode, where we were trying to explain the kind of geometry of a tokamak,” says Andrew. “We very quickly gave up on ringed-doughnuts and decided that the best thing to talk about is bagels! Because then you could talk about the direction in which you cover a bagel with whatever topping and compare the smearing directions to the toroidal directions.”

Who’s who at A Glass of Seawater (l-r) Andrew Malcom-Neale: PhD candidate, University of York, a diagnostician studying the interaction of turbulence and flows. Podcast Producer, getting everything together to keep the podcast running smoothly; Bhavin Patel: PhD candidate, University of York, working on thesis titled: ‘In Search of Compact Routes to Fusion’. Head Editor, makes all the sound bites pristine and clear; William Trickey: PhD candidate, University of York, works on extreme shockwave studies for inertial fusion. In-charge of public engagement & outreach and has the finger on how many listeners tune in.

Lots in the name!

When it comes to vivid mental images, the phrase ‘A Glass of Seawater’ in the context of fusion energy is probably as good as it gets. Bhavin Patel, who originally came up with the name for the podcast, talks about the episode that focussed on how much fuel for the fusion reaction can be obtained from a glass of seawater. “You talk about this glass which basically has the same energy density as many kilograms of coal or a ton of TNT,” he explains. “It gave perspective on how energy dense the fusion fuel is; that was a really nice analogy.”

Reflecting back on the decision to name the podcast after this energy-dense glass, William says, “We had a brainstorm session and had a lot of suggested names! The original idea was ‘Can I have a glass of seawater?’ which was rather long.”  Among the suggested names was Talk-a-mak. It didn’t make the final cut, but went on to be the title for one of the episodes, that as the name suggests, delves into the world of magnetic confinement fusion.

But A Glass of Seawater takes a broad, and simultaneously, an in-depth approach to covering fusion. So, magnetic confinement fusion is just one of the many facets that have been covered. Their niche, the team says, is probably being the only podcast that attempts to cover the nitty-gritties of fusion research.

How much energy?

How much fuel for the fusion reaction can be taken from a glass of seawater? Listen to Season 3, Episode 3 and find out!

Here’s what goes into the mixing glass

“Fusion covers a breath of different topics from lasers, to plasmas, to neutronics, to a whole bunch of different things.  And no general science podcast can really cover the different nuances of fusion research,” says Bhavin.  “A Glass of Seawater gives people an idea that fusion very complicated because there are so many different things that we are researching at the same time,” he says.

Andrew agrees: “In our initial episodes we deliberately started talking very broadly about what fusion is, the big broad topics, and our later episodes focus on the different bits of research. We want to give the idea that fusion is an ongoing research project, where there are lots of exciting little things happening all the time.” And, that, he thinks this is exactly where the strength of podcast as a medium lies. “With a podcast you get a chance to tell a longer story. It allows us to take time over each topic and it allows people to choose how in-depth they want to go.”

“You do get to see how it all fits together,” William adds.  “For example, we can spend some time to talk about lasers in fusion and then talk about lasers in other areas. When we talk about plasma in fusion, we can connect it to plasma thrusters in space technology. We also get a chance to talk about other “drivers” in fusion such as superconductors and its applications.”

From high-school students to fusion enthusiasts and the fusion community, the team says they craft episodes to match different audiences. There is something for anyone who’s curious about the world of fusion research. Having crossed the learning curve and fine-tuned work-flows, the team has now stepped into Season 3 of the podcast. So go ahead, whet your fusion appetite and check out what’s already been served!