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Back to school: teaching students about the star power of fusion

Dr Alec Shackleford, Research & Development Engineer, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA)March 24, 2023

Recently, I was invited back to my secondary school to deliver a talk on fusion energy to a group of Year 11 students. I was invited by my former history teacher and now, the Director of Careers at Budmouth Academy, Baron Miles.

The focus of the event was to provide an insight on the skills required for a wide range of careers and provide specific examples of these skills being used in industry. Those involved ranged from engineers to nurses to fighter pilots to name a few.

As Research & Development Engineer at UKAEA, my topic of choice was ‘Fusion energy: Using star power on earth’.

The students signed up for specific talks and I was thrilled to see considerable interest in fusion energy – we had a full room!

I wanted to give students an overview of the subjects I studied on the pathway to working in fusion energy. I briefly discussed my previous education from secondary all the way to my PhD completion. I even added an image of a much slimmer, younger me from when I was attending at school!

I then spoke about my first “real” jobs after graduating, which included working as a Postdoctoral Researcher and a Radiation Protection Technologist.

But my focus of the talk was my current role as a research and development engineer at UKAEA.

I explained what we do at UKAEA and what fusion energy is all about. I gave a short science lesson, explaining that the sun is a giant fusion energy generator, before telling students how we are mimicking the fusion process by building our own “star” on earth. I described this with the help of a giant doughnut (Homer Simpson style) and some big cartoon magnets before showing them a more accurate representation of a tokamak and introducing them to the Joint European Torus (JET).

After this, I played a clip of the world record breaking pulse that JET achieved last year and continued to explain why we are carrying out this research –essentially to save the planet.

I showed them the six key fusion challenges which have been identified which need to be overcome to make fusion happen. In brief, these are plasma science, plasma exhaust, materials science, fuel handling, robotic maintenance, and innovative engineering. I then introduced H3AT and simplified the role of H3AT – “We’re interested in everything related to the fuel”.

Now it was time to get into my role which I broke down into parts.

Research – the science, exploration and trying to learn. Development – contribute to growth and progress in fusion technology. Engineer – designing, building, and maintaining things based on the research & development we have conducted.

I went on to explain how I work with other scientists and engineers who all have a common goal of making fusion a part of the world’s energy mix. This significant goal involves designing, building, and then experimenting to inform the design of future fusion powerplants.

I was asked to speak about some key skills which you might expect an R&D engineer to have, and I covered maths, physics, chemistry and computing. With each subject area, I gave a simple example of how this relates to fusion. For example, for physics, I related this to radiation detection and thermal studies of instruments, both crucial aspects of fusion energy.

I finished the talk by discussing why the students might want a career in similar field. My message was that if you like to build, if you are curious, if you want to travel, if you want an exciting job, financial security and you ultimately want to make a difference on a global scale, then this is the career for you.

The students were engaged and asked some good questions (as did their physics teacher!).
It was a great event and with a bit of luck, I met some future fusioneers!

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