Professor Ian Chapman is a rising star in the fusion world. Chapman succeeded Professor Steve Cowley as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the beginning of October. At the age of 34, Chapman is one of the youngest CEOs of a major research centre. He brings his passion for fusion to the role while leading the UK’s research programme for magnetic confinement fusion at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE), the home to JET. Meriame Berboucha had the opportunity to ask Professor Chapman a few questions. His answers also shed some light on the future of fusion in the UK after Brexit.

Why haven’t we perfected fusion yet?
“The big challenge we face in fusion is integrating all challenging constraints into one stable fusion reactor. The individual tasks sound bonkers: we say we are going to take a fuel which is the most intense neutron source on Earth. We are going to make it ten times hotter than the Sun’s core – sounds ridiculous, but we do it every day. Then we put that fuel in a box and parts of that box have to withstand heat loads of similar conditions to a re-entering space shuttle – again sounds bonkers, but we can find ways to do that.
Fusion offers so many potentials: it is limitless energy, produces no radioactive by-products or long-living radioactive waste, it requires little space, steady state – it’s everything that you want in a power source. Solving the individual tasks are challenging for the community. ITER will be a proof of the principle and an absolutely essential step. I think the UK programme, in particular, as well as the European programme are both efficiently set up to do so. But we must do it”.

Plasma physics is far more embryonic so you are learning new things every day.

What is it about fusion that fascinates you the most?
“The beauty of fusion for me is that it has the two things that I wanted when I was looking into different career options. Fusion is very mission oriented, I’m quite an altruistic person, I want to make a difference, want to change the world. Fusion really does that, it is such an important thing for mankind to find a solution. At the same time, the science that we do is just intrinsically fascinating. Plasma physics is not a very old field, it’s not like classical dynamics which has been around for centuries. Plasma physics is far more
embryonic so you are learning new things every day. And so, you’re coupling those two things: a very important mission with an intrinsically fascinating science”.

What does it feel like to be one of the youngest CEOs of a major research centre? Will you bring something different to the role?
“First of all, I firmly believe that Culham is the world’s best fusion laboratory. We have a unique mix of engineering skills, scientists and cutting edge technologists and I just feel really honoured to be able to lead that amazing group of people. Fusion for me is the challenge of my generation. I am committed to realising fusion energy. I hope that I bring that passion through in this job”.

Fusion is the challenge of my generation.

How did you make it to the top of CCFE and what do you think about ITER?
“I did a masters in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Durham, then I did a PhD in plasma physics at Imperial College London, after that, I joined Culham on the graduate scheme and I’ve slowly moved up the hierarchy. When I was at university I was reading a lot about ITER and the preparations for it. Not long after I joined Culham in 2004, the ITER agreement was signed, so ITER, in some sense, defined my career. I was here more or less as ITER was signed and, at the end of my career, we will have achieved success with ITER”.

JET is used by about 29 European laboratories and their partners – how important is international collaboration for a successful fusion quest?
“I am firmly of the opinion that science moves faster if you collaborate. That is the beauty of fusion, everything is open, we’re completely open and collaborative. In my opinion, ITER is the most collaborative endeavour that mankind has ever done. We are progressing faster as a field by being together, there’s no doubt about that”.

How will you proceed in the international exchange in times of Brexit?
“Brexit is certainly a concern for us, we need to find a route through this somewhat more complicated landscape now. It is really important that the UK remains open and collaborative and doesn’t turn its back on our partners, be that European partners or international partners. It is vital that we stay within that community and don’t become insular. We continue to look outward and that is what we will do as a laboratory”.

What are the main new technologies that are being developed to advance magnetic confinement fusion at CCFE?
If we look around the Culham site, we have JET, the world’s best tokamak at the moment. It is absolutely essential that we are running that in preparation for ITER, but we are beginning to think about what comes thereafter. We have a new research facility which is looking at material properties under significant irradiation. Since a fusion reactor is a very challenging environment, we have a specialised robotic applications centre. Answering the question of how to maintain that reactor and make sure it is available for as much of the time as possible is very important. How we are going to manufacture the materials that can withstand these high heat fluxes and intense neutron bombardments are the challenges the fusion community faces. At Culham, we have facilities which are designed to do exactly that”.

JET won‘t be here when ITER is burning plasmas.

What happens to JET when ITER finally starts to burn its first plasma?
“JET won’t be here when ITER is burning plasmas, as a community we should be putting everything towards ITER – we must make ITER work. Having said that, JET is the best place to make sure that ITER does work, we must prepare as thoroughly as possible using JET, but once we have ITER and ITER is operational, we should be focussed on ITER, and at that point we won’t be operating JET anymore”.

Meriame Berboucha. Picture: private I am fourth year MSci Physics student with a passion for science and science communication. I’ve caught the physics bug and I’d like to share my enthusiasm for the subject with others in the hope that they will catch the physics bug too!

Meriame Berboucha (21) from England is currently based at Imperial College, London.
Twitter: @MBerboucha
Facebook: PopomaticImperial
(Picture: private)