For anyone as passionate about nuclear fusion as I am, there is no better place to be than at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). Like trying to find a box in which to fit the Sun, Culham scientists, among others, are researching material properties designed to cope with the extreme environments needed to sustain fusion. I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute to this quest in a small way  during my five-month placement at EUROfusion’s British Research Unit.

Getting real

Being an undergraduate in physics often feels like what you learn in lectures has very little to do with the real world. Since my very first day here, I got to practical grips with ANSYS, a computer-aided design software package which was also used to design ITER. ITER will be the first magnetic confinement fusion device to produce a net surplus of energy. I initially learnt some basic modelling concepts, but later I had to analyse my simulation results using the knowledge I had already acquired at school and at university. Although it is a placement focused on materials research, I realised how vital an understanding of physical concepts is in order to be able to suggest improvements to models for fusion devices.

Understanding what happens

Culham has just recently opened its Materials Research Facility (MRF) which contains specific “equipment for the processing and characterisation of radioactive materials”, to quote the outgoing CEO, Professor Steven Cowley. During a fusion reaction, the involved components become irradiated. Thus, an understanding of what happens is crucial when the first ever fusion demonstration power plant, known as DEMO, comes online. This should hopefully take place within the course of this century, perhaps even within my lifetime.

ESOF: a greater achievement

I also attended the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) Conference in July in Manchester. This is held biennially and promotes scientific collaboration across many organisations. One of these is EIROforum, an excellent example of the idea that science goes beyond national borders. EIROforum consists of eight members, among them CERN, ESA and EUROfusion. These organisations have access to a wealth of collective resources and infrastructures, with operations across the world. In this way, the contribution of each individual member adds to the greater collective achievement and drives Europe’s scientific progress forward to an unprecedented degree. The EIROforum stand at the ESOF showcased different fusion applications and presented how the outcomes are used within other fields, such as space science and biomedicine.

It is up to the next generation

Dreaming about the Culham Center for Fusion Energy.

Dreaming about the Culham Center for Fusion Energy.

My generation, the one currently in education, is responsible for making fusion work. It was a great privilege to listen to Bernard Bigot’s speech when he visited Culham. The Director-General communicated his mission and the goals he wishes to achieve by 2025, which is when ITER is due to become operational. The talk has filled me with confidence that the project will go ahead and the sum of worldwide efforts will result in achieving fusion.

Differences between studying and researching

A traditional university physics course focusses on passing exams and going through lab scripts without putting any real thought into the experiments. At CCFE, on the contrary, everyone is working towards the most important scientific experiment of the century. During my stay, I have realised the multi-disciplinarity of the field. It requires people with a range of backgrounds and skills to work together to achieve this goal.

Problems or challenges?

As I recall from my early teenage years, it was said that ITER would start experiments by 2019, but this has since been delayed. This feeds into the belief that fusion “is forty years away and always will be”. That is just not the case. The efforts in Culham and in EUROfusion’s twenty-eight other research units will play out. The public should be aware that, in 1997, JET, the European-owned tokamak based at Culham set the world fusion power record of 16 MW, which was 60 percent of the input power. The challenge is to achieve at least five times the input power as only 20 percent of the power will stay inside the plasma. Only then the plasma will be able to heat itself. Fusion will eventually be necessary to sustain the population’s ever-increasing energy needs. For this reason, it is essential that we turn fusion into a working reality.

Science – too far from your daily life?

I welcomed being thrown into the deep end during my placement. I knew ultimately that the skills I was developing and the knowledge I was gaining would, bit-by-bit, make me more competent and confident when it comes to a career in fusion. What really matters is a great passion for the field. I think it is vital to see the challenges of fusion research in a positive light. These are the next set of tasks for humanity. We should not fear them, but rather, go forward with faith and regard them as the path towards the solution.

Despite the setbacks, it will be worth it

It can be intimidating reading through journals, scientific papers and the endless manuals on how to get to grips with software, not to mention attending plasma theory meetings with  some of the world’s leading theorists. However, it was a true learning experience. This was far better than being expected to memorise equations without obtaining a full understanding of the content.

In Culham, I have attended lectures by working scientists and PhD students regarding their very latest research. I was not afraid to question the things I did not know. Every day I was reminded that I was at a place where great things are going to happen, thanks to the many collaborations and networks formed to solve problems. I was sad to leave Culham in September and I hope that this will not be my last time at what is arguably the most inspiring scientific establishment in the UK.

I would like to thank Dr Llion Evans for supervising me during my placement, The Ogden Trust for financial support, Thomas Walker for proof-reading and editing work, Sarah Peace for photography and EUROfusion for allowing me to write about my experiences.

Elrica Feride Degirmen (20) from England is currently based at the University of Leeds.  (Picture: private)