"My dream? To turn on the light knowing that it comes from a fusion plant"
Pablo Rodríguez Fernández is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Plasma Science and Fusion Center. He has received numerous awards for his academic excellence and is the only under-30 Spaniard who made the Forbes list in 2021. He works in Boston, USA, in nuclear fusion projects, including SPARC, an experiment involving high-temperature superconductors that will allow to build more compact, cheaper reactors for future commercial use. In his opinion, it will be possible to have a pilot nuclear fusion plant in 15 years. In this interview he assures that "renewables, fusion and fission will coexist," and although he is optimistic he believes that "the biggest challenge for fusion is its technical viability, and especially its economic viability."
When did you find your passion for the world of science?
I have always been more attracted to science subjects such as physics, mathematics, chemistry or technology. I was also passionate about watching documentaries explaining physics and engineering issues, or covering large projects and questions and curiosities regarding the universe.
I was not too sure about what career to choose, because... I was interested in everything! I finally chose industrial engineering. And here I am, deep inside the world of science!
From a professional viewpoint, which would you say is your biggest dream?
From a professional point of view, my dream would be to turn on the light at home knowing that it comes from a fusion plant... from the fusion of charged particles in the center of a plasma at 200 million degrees, confined and stabilized thanks to human knowledge and inventiveness. I would like that moment to come and be aware that I contributed in a small way, that my work throughout the years helped to make a better world for ourselves. From a more pragmatic point of view, my dream is to make the previous dream come true by working and contributing with technical aspects and my own research, from a place or under conditions that allow me to be near my own family, friends and culture.
What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Completing my Doctor's Degree in Science at MIT. Even though I switched from engineering to physics, studied in a language that was not my mother tongue and had just one year of previous research experience, I believe that my doctorate stage was quite successful. I studied an issue with which the fusion community had been struggling for two decades, and I was finally able to offer a solution to the problem which concluded that chapter in plasma physics. In fact, fixing this problem led me to publish in important scientific magazines, be invited to speak at the most prestigious conferences and finish my doctorate in record time. It was a great period, but it was also very hard, and that is why I consider it my greatest accomplishment to date—because it brought to me the awards that came later and an offer for a permanent position at MIT.
In fact, you are working on MIT'S SPARC nuclear fusion experiment supported by Bill Gates. What do you think makes it so groundbreaking?
What makes SPARC so groundbreaking is that it is the only conventional Tokamak being built with what are known as high-temperature superconductors (HTS). The fact that it is a conventional Tokamak, like ITER, means that its physics and engineering have been the most studied in the world of fusion. This gives us confidence in that it will achieve the results we expect when construction is over.
In 2025, just three years from now, we will start the experiments by fusing deuterium and tritium and producing net energy in the plasma, a milestone that has not been reached in any magnetic confinement fusion machine.
"We hope the SPARC Fusion Project will give us the answers we need to start building a pilot electricity production plant as soon as possible"
We hope SPARC will give us the answers we need to start building a pilot electricity production plant as soon as possible. We call it ARC, and we want to have it ready in the 2030's. It is a very aggressive regarding dates, but we believe it is possible and necessary if we want fusion to contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.
Regarding the time frames you mention, in a recent interview you indicated that 15 years from now we could have a pilot nuclear fusion plant. I see that you still hold on to that horizon.
Yes. Also, having had first-hand experience of how fast a private company can launch projects, attract talent and capital and grow in record time, I am even more confident that we could have a pilot fusion plant by the early 2030's. It would be the first of many, of course; this prototype would not be the most optimized and affordable, but it would be a big step towards showing the world that fusion belongs to the future of our electricity market.
“I am confident that we could have a pilot fusion plant by the early 2030's”
How is the SPARC Project you are working on complemented by ITER and other fusion research projects in the United Kingdom or China?
The research done in laboratories throughout history and for the design and planning of experiments at ITER has been very useful to SPARC's design, and the future experiments at ITER after it is turned on and in other projects will continue to be paramount to optimizing the design of future fusion plants. The conditions that will be reached within ITER and SPARC will be unique, which makes these two machines very necessary for the advance of fusion as a source of clean energy.
“ITER and SPARC are two very necessary machines for the advance of fusion as a source of clean energy"
The SPARC Project also cooperates actively with other fusion projects as well as many universities, not just MIT. Throughout the years the fusion community has shown its collaborative spirit. All of us working on the fusion projects want fusion to become a reality, and the best way to do this is to work together to reach that goal.
How would you summarize the advantages of fusion energy and its challenges?
Fusion combines the advantages of renewables (zero emissions, safe and having plenty of fuel) with the advantages of fossil fuels, such as their availability at all times without needing specific sites. Apart from this, fusion does not produce long-lasting radioactive waste and does not require chain reactions, which is a clear advantage regarding fission.
The greatest challenge for fusion is its technical and economic viability. We have never proven the net production of energy, not to mention electricity, in a fusion plant. Fortunately, now we have simulations with physical models and databases from experiments indicating that it is possible to build a plant based on nuclear fusion. All our knowledge points to the fact that both the SPARC and ITER plasmas will function successfully, but we still need to prove it in real life. That is the reason for the existence of SPARC and ITER: experimental platforms that allow us to verify models, expand databases, find solutions and come as close as possible to showing how plasmas would operate at a fusion plant.
Lastly, the economic viability of fusion is certainly one of its greatest challenges. In the past few years, the fusion community has been benefitting from the arrival of private capital, investors and companies with a much more pragmatic vision of what the energy market needs to embrace fusion as a viable option. This is breaking new grounds to improve economic viability.
In your opinion, while commercial fusion reactors are on their way, will fission reactors continue to be relevant?
Yes. I believe in a world with an electric market where fusion, fission and renewables coexist. Nowadays, fission plants are very safe and advanced, and fascinating new generations of reactors are appearing, such as compact off-shore reactors, or reactors that reuse spent fuel. Fusion will come to combat fossil fuels, and when this happens the worlds of fission and fusion will be even more intertwined. Both are working to reach the same goal: producing clean, strong and safe energy.
“Nuclear power plants are safe and advanced, and fascinating new generations of fission reactors are appearing"
Why do you believe that nuclear fusion has more acceptance or more support than fission?
Unfortunately, lack of knowledge and certain propaganda make the public associate fission with dangerous waste, nuclear weapons and catastrophic accidents. No matter how hard we try to make the public understand that it is our best option to produce clean and safe energy, it is difficult to get rid of those labels. In the case of fusion there are those who oppose it because its last name is "nuclear", but they are a minority. Usually, fusion is well regarded since it does not operate with chain reactions, does not continually produce radioactive waste and the risk of proliferation is minimum.
“Unfortunately, lack of knowledge and certain propaganda make the public associate fission with dangerous waste, nuclear weapons and catastrophic accidents"
As you have ocassionally said, you are trying to "create a star in a laboratory". What is a normal day for you at MIT?
When I work on SPARC I implement numeric and optimization methods to be able to make a computerized prediction of how SPARC will behave when we turn it on. I also notify the engineers and other physicists in the project what is the best way to operate the plasma in order to achieve full performance. This means that I write a lot of code as a routine, both for data analysis and also machine learning, and I run simulations on very powerful machines.
On the days I work with experiments such as the ASDEX Upgrade in Germany or JET in the United Kingdom, my work involves validating computer models. This means using data and measures on the experiments performed and comparing them with the prediction of the computer simulations. This helps me understand whether the hypotheses used in the simulations are correct, and it gives me key information on how to improve them.
You have a blog where you share your professional achievements, conferences and publications. How did this interest on dissemination come about?
It was quite natural, since there are a lot of dissemination activities in my laboratory. The doctorate students organize visits and offer tours to schools and visitors to MIT. Also, fusion is a very compelling subject because it sounds like "science fiction", and this attracts a lot of interest when I speak about what we do. So I eventually warmed up to it, and now I cooperate on videos and offer seminars and lectures to universities apart from my usual research work. It is very important to do this, because the world needs to know what we do and how crucial it is.
“The world needs to know the importance of nuclear fusion”
From a more personal perspective, will you stay in the United States for many more years, or are you planning to return?
It is hard to know. For now I will be staying here a few more years, at least until we get results from SPARC, a project that I feel very passionate about and to which I am deeply committed professionally. At some point, I would like to go back to Europe or Spain to be closer to my family, friends and culture. So if I found a way to do it, or to combine both experiences, it would be great.
Cover photo: Pablo Rodríguez, MIT. (Photo: P Rivenberg - PSFC)