Meet the nuclear fusion researcher hoping to spark an energy revolution


27 Mar 20197.53k Views

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Erik Trask. Image: Erik Trask/TAE Technologies

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Erik Trask of TAE Technologies is helping to usher in an age of unlimited, clean electricity through the power of nuclear fusion.

After graduating in 2001 from Pacific Lutheran University with a degree in applied physics, Erik Trask went on to undertake graduate research at the University of California Irvine, culminating in a PhD in plasma physics.

Since then, he has worked at TAE Technologies in the fusion division as its lead experimental scientist and experiment section head.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Two events figured prominently in my choice of profession, which both occurred in about seventh grade. I grew up in a small fishing town in Alaska and would frequently work on fishing boats with my parents or other fishermen.

On one such trip, my father and I were deckhands for a 24-hour halibut fishing trip, during which I was awake for about 30 hours straight and had to gut and ice fish weighing up to 70lbs. At about 3am, the captain told me something that I’ll never forget. He said: “Erik, you could probably do this for the rest of your life if you don’t care much for studying.” I weighed up the pros and cons and decided that the several thousand dollars I would make was probably not worth it, so studying and learning was the path for me!

During school that year, we were asked to create a presentation for a science class. I chose to write about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, which was just beginning. The joint project between the US and Soviet Union to create a power plant running on isotopes of hydrogen seemed to me to be the most exciting thing ever.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My research deals with the experimental characterisation and optimisation of a self-organised plasma called a field-reversed configuration, which has great promise as a platform for a controlled fusion power plant.

In particular, I focus on the development of experimental scenarios from which scaling studies (extrapolations) of plasma cooling rates can be made in order to plan for a grid-scale, next-generation facility.

I work with amazing scientists from all over the world at TAE Technologies, generating and testing hypotheses on the C-2W experimental facility. This machine, also known as Norman, is a national lab-scale experiment.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I believe that I have a moral duty to be a good steward of the Earth. I feel that nuclear fusion can solve many of the issues we are faced with living in a finite world with a limited amount of various natural resources.

As global populations increase and standards of living rise, the key constraint is access to affordable and clean energy. For instance, if energy is cheap enough, large-scale desalination can be affordable. If energy sources are cleaner, water and air pollution will be reduced.

It is known that global supplies of energy suitable for baseload sources will become difficult to produce in the future. Various estimates put ‘peak oil’ production at some time in the next 50 years. Similar calculations can be done for other sources such as fissile materials and natural gas.

While the amount of time we may have before energy supplies dwindle is impossible to predict, the main point is that an energy source with much greater reserves and lower cost will be a tremendous boon and be necessary for our society to continue on its current path.

Nuclear fusion using hydrogen and boron is being pursued by TAE Technologies, with essentially unlimited sources and essentially no waste or pollution. If the research done here can show that practical power plants can be built utilising these fuels, then we will have essentially solved our energy needs for the foreseeable future.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Baseload power plants that provide electricity are the target for the fusion research that is being worked on by me and many others at TAE Technologies. This is a large market and is our main focus.

As an R&D-oriented company, there are other spin-off technologies that are being developed in conjunction with the fusion effort. Efficient power supplies for magnets have led to electric vehicle possibilities, and plasma heating systems have opened up opportunities for cancer therapies.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge I face is balancing the academic and commercial approaches to scientific research. There are many times when interesting observations simply cannot be pursued because they are not high enough on the priority list; reaching sufficient understanding to make the next advancement as fast as possible drives much of our goal setting. It is difficult to leave things behind while trying to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think there is a belief that new and relatively clean energy sources like wind and solar can provide all the energy we need. What is missing from the equation is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, and yet lights should remain on. I think it is important for people to understand where power comes from, what the benefits and drawbacks really are, and recognise a clean energy mix is the best way forward.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

High-temperature superconductors are an exciting technology that will open up new opportunities as manufacturing capabilities improve. Access to higher currents and magnetic fields with reduced heating will open new doors for magnetically confined fusion ideas. The electrical power grid can also be improved with greater usage of affordable superconducting transmission lines.

I’d also love to see improvements in battery technology. Improvements in energy storage can allow transient/intermittent power sources (wind, solar) to be leveraged more fully and reduce reliance on dirtier sources of energy.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.