Posted in Career, Education, Engineering, Nuclear Fusion

Study advice

From an answer to an enquiry from a student:

Hi Jonathan! Thanks for your message, nice to cyber meet you. Engineering and physics is a good combination, especially if you have a clear idea with what you want to do with your career. Technological developments are first rooted in science (physics is the cornerstone of science, chemistry is applied physics, but chemists may be offended by that!). Working on scientific research and academia does have commercial spinoffs, but progress may seem slow, or theories may be developed and proven, but applications may not be found until decades later. Once a theory is proven, the way is paved for engineering research, development, testing, and finally commercialisation. I started doing engineering with a bachelor in science (physics) however I lost interest in physics after my first year, as I didn’t see what value I could create with that skill. I went along with popular sentiment over nuclear power—fission was too dangerous, and fusion seemed like it was the energy source of the future, but people said it was 50 years away fifty years ago, and it was still apparently fifty years away. I never bothered to question these sentiments and look further into the technologies
Before I directly address the rest of your comments, I’ve been looking more into nuclear fusion and advanced fission. Just tonight, I’ve found a technology that seems like the best that I’ve seen so far (I’ve said that several times over the past few weeks). The technology is with Lawrenceville Plasma Physics Fusion (LFFP). Key benefits of their technology includes:
– aneutronic proton boron11 fusion which is safe (1/500th of the energy is released as neutrons, using a few inches of shielding can absorb any radiation)
– projected or claimed cost of $0.002 USD/kWh or 0.2 US ¢/kWh (by comparison, nuclear fission, fully amortised and paid off, costs 2 c/kWh, coal costs 3-5 ¢/kWh).
– a compact, cheap 5 MW reactor that you can hold in your hands and that can be used for distributed energy, propulsion for space travel (such as travel to Mars in a couple of weeks), power for desalination, ending energy poverty, and X-ray one sided inspection (which could be done from a truck, saving billions of dollars in inspection and preventative maintenance).
– Here’s a concise video on how it works: https://vimeo.com/89969450. Because it can generate electricity directly from using a particle decelerator (reverse particle accelerator that slows down a beam of ionised particles—helium nuclei in this case—and collects the energy as the beam passes through coils), expensive turbines, generators, and working fluid transmission systems are not needed.
You may have noticed my absence at the industry night. There are two reasons for that. I get enough income from working at Sungrow as a technical support engineer and as an independent tutor to not need any other work. As such, I’d prefer to spend some of the free time that I have to look into long term growth opportunities such as nuclear fusion, which I hope you can see has yielded very interesting information.
Re your comments, there is some things happening with nuclear fusion in Australia, such as with the University of Sydney’s polywell research team, and Star Scientific (http://www.starscientific.com.au). There’s also a nuclear fusion research division at ANU, however, I would stay away from it because it is geared towards research that aids ITER, which is unlikely to be commercially viable (they just extended their commercially viable target by at least another 10 years from 2050 to 2060-2070, already after multiple budget overruns and delays). If a commercially viable tokamak (the fusion approach used by ITER) is ever built, it would be the size of a football stadium, with tons of concrete and steel to contain and stabilise the plasma, cryogenic devices, tritium breeders, and waste removal systems.
For more information about fusion approaches, here’s a start: http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/05/nuclear-fusion-summary.html?m=1. Quora, Google, and Wikipedia are useful too.
While commercially mature renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal are growing, I’m concerned that they aren’t growing fast enough to keep abreast with economic development, energy needs, sustainable development goals under international climate agreements and scientific consensus, and development in developing countries.
Note that as Brian Wang points out (in the above link to Next Big Future), there is potential in solar and energy storage, as well as other energy technologies. For example, there’s Raygen, which uses concentrating solar PV with gallium arsenide 40.1% efficient collector PV plates (developed at UNSW) and the size of an A4 piece of paper, and a field of curved mirrors, or heliostats, and a cooling and storage system. There’s also several concentrating solar thermal companies such as Vast. Nuclear fusion is not yet proven to be commercially viable, so it’s best not to put all our eggs in one basket (a lesson for multi-government funding in fusion research mostly being allocating to ITER at USD 16 billion, plus the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) at IIRC USD 4 billion, and Wendelstein 7-X at about 1.6 billion). Smaller, less expensive fusion approaches are needed for diversification, but they have avoided government funding because of the way it is allocated (large projects get corporate sponsorship and creates jobs, which wins votes and keeps the government in power).
Beyond solar, energy storage, and nuclear fusion, there’s:
– advanced fission (e.g. Travelling Wave Reactors with Terrapower,  however, even fission is not in Australia);
– wind (e.g. Infigen, Goldwind, Senvion, Vestas, and ZEM);
– pumped hydro, geothermal, waste biomass, hydrogen fuel cells, tidal;
– wave (e.g. Carnegie), energy efficiency,
– sustainable building design (e.g. Lend Lease, AECOM, and Cundall);
– energy consulting (e.g. Energeia, DNV GL Energetics, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, Boston Consulting Group, EY, McKinsey and KPMG); and
– energy equipment (e.g. Schneider Electric and GE).
There are of course lots of industry sectors such as manufacturing, certification, testing, development, and operation.

While finding work overseas is difficult, especially for a student or recent graduate with limited experience, once you get your foot into the door in an industry, such as with an internship, it becomes easier to find further work opportunities and career growth.

As for R&D, it can be used for any technology! Broadly speaking, R&D is proving new scientific theories, and developing useful applications with them (even if it sometimes takes a long time for those applications to be developed, as is the case with fusion). Then you have demonstration which is scaling up the size with prototypes and pilot plants, then a full sized commercially viable plant. Then you have mass production and economies of scale to further reduce costs incrementally on a logarithmic scale with production volume.

If I went back in time before the beginning of my degree, I wish that I took more time to research various research areas, industries, technologies, and organisations, in order to give more clarity with career paths. At the time, I somewhat naively thought something like :”renewable energy is great—the panacea for global warming and the global energy crisis!” I also wish that I had the passion, motivation, and perseverance to learn more about the various energy sources, and which seemed best, and pivot career paths and education if that was what seemed best, after careful, unhasty evaluation, and not get tunnel vision with getting good grades (which is needed for competitive positive such as in large corporations) or doing or looking for part time work.

If you want to find a career that you enjoy, the key is to have an open, enquiring, positively sceptical mind. Find an area where there is a real, strong need, then try to find the best way to address that need.

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