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Nuclear engineering or plasma physics?

  1. Dec 13, 2015 #1
    Hello, I am a new member here at physics forums and find myself unsure of how to go about pursuing my career interest in nuclear fusion research, and if it is even something I should be pursuing at all.

    My goal is to some day work in fusion research, but everyone I have talked to about this passion of mine has shot it down or told me its a dead end and should pursue something else. There is nuclear physicist at my college that actually wrote a paper about the history of fusion research in the united states, I have talked to him several times about this goal of mine, and I asked him the question of whether I should major as a undergrad in nuclear engineering or go for a degree in physics then plasma physics in grad school.

    Now obviously these very different career paths, at least here at Penn state, nuclear engineering is aimed solely at the fission power generation (industry). Plasma physics has many different fields but I imagine that fusion power is probably the biggest aspect in research in said field. When I asked him this question, I meant that both career paths have there pros and cons to me, Nuclear engineering has the better job prospect and it already has an established industry.

    However,(in my opinion) working at a power plant doesn't yield the satisfaction of working on new research and innovation. He told me that in all honesty, If i chose the path of plasma physics that I need to understand that chances are I probably am not going to make a break through in anything, and that I would probably end up teaching the next generation of physicists in the hopes that maybe they might crack the fusion mystery. He said that I should just stick with nuclear engineering as it would probably lead me to more success and satisfaction as a career.

    The problem I seem to face also, is engineering vs applied physics. I like the practicality of engineering but like learning the theories of physics. I have come to the conclusion to major in nuclear engineering and minor in physics, though find my self torn on what path to take.

    So what do you guys think? In your opinions what should I pursue? My fear is wasting time and money on pursuing the wrong path. Any and all comments or advice on the matter would be greatly appreciated!
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 13, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2015 #2


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    Plasma physics is central to the fusion process, just as neutronics (or neutron physics, which includes neutron transport and interactions with matter), or reactor physics is central to the fission process. Both are part of nuclear engineering, which encompasses the technology of exploiting nuclear processes to develop useful energy, be it electrical and/or thermal. There are numerous technical challenges facing the realization of fusion. In magnetic confinement, there are challenges in the confinement process (plasma physics, and interaction of the plasma and magnetic fields), energy conversion, superconducting magnets, materials (e.g., first wall interaction, longevity, etc,)

    These issues are strongly dependent on the plasma composition, e.g., DD or DT, or whatever. Hydrogen isotopes are the lightest, and simplest with Z=1. As Z increases, one has to consider energy losses, because higher Z means higher temperatures and more electrons to offset the greater Z.

    One could do both nuclear engineering and plasma physics. Such knowledge and experience has application beyond just fusion. Irradiation effects on materials, particularly structural alloys for fusion systems has some commonality with fast reactor technology and advanced reactor concepts.

    If everyone interest in fusion were discouraged to the point of foregoing academic studies in the field, then the field would cease to exist.
  4. Dec 13, 2015 #3
    Thank you, doing both is something I will definitely consider. I guess I was just a bit down hearted from all the lack of support from family and even the professor I spoke to in pursuing plasma physics rather than nuclear engineering. But I completely agree that pursuing both since there is over lap wouldn't be a bad idea.
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