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Pursue a career in nuclear fusion or instrument control?

  1. May 2, 2017 #1
    So, I have a Bachelor's degree in Electronics and Communications (outside of US) and I wanted to pursue work in nuclear fusion so I had applied for an MS in nuclear engineering in the US. I have gotten admission in the University of Florida.

    Anyway, I was sharing this information elsewhere on the internet and one participant of the discussion said that with my background, I would be suited to instrumentation and control.

    I want to know will I be able to pursue a career in nuclear fusion or would it be wiser to do as that person suggested and go into instrumentation and control?

    Personally, I love being within STEM and I would love to just be able to innovate to produce something helpful to people. That is the most important to me. I believe a career within the nuclear fusion field would allow this greatly. But at the same time I do want some measure of job security. Not a great measure. I can be frugal, live with only the absolute bare necessities, but that is better than being unemployed which is why just a a little bit of advice on this matter would be nice.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 2, 2017 #2


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    At this point in time, it is unclear whether nuclear fusion will ever be an economically viable way to generate electricity. I would not advise narrowing your options to this field, but would advise you to keep a broader set of options open. Just my opinion.
  4. May 2, 2017 #3
    I'm very curious in asking how an Electronics and Communications BS from outside US accredation gets accepted to an MS Nuclear Fusion program.

    I ask this because I am very curious in Nuclear Fusion, my background has NOTHING to do with physics or Nuclear of any discipline, but I still am curious about it and obviously would want to just jump into an MS program sometime going forward.

    Especially since I don't want to quit my day job of cyber security.

    And I probably wouldn't want to relocate for schooling either...the unfortunate side-effect of being in a highly productive IT environment is I'm used to being able to do everything remotely. So why not school?

    Anyway. I'd be interested to know how you built that bridge.
  5. May 2, 2017 #4
    Could you elaborate on your recommendation?

    It's not nuclear fusion. It's nuclear engineering. The bridge is a little more easily built. It's not physics per se and even if you do more of what is related to your BS, from what I've heard it is not like there is no need of people with knowledge of circuitry in this field. I simply hope to be able to specialize somewhat in nuclear fusion through this, that is all.

    And I have to move there. I can not doing this remotely.
  6. May 2, 2017 #5
    Yes, that's a feature of the university system I was just lamenting it. 95% of universities can be done remotely. The labs and equipment not so much. Especially a research reactor lol.

    Although simulators do exist but you know...sometimes you need to actually touch something and I get that.

    I'm more interested though as you said, the Nuclear Engineering, just did you need to test for it? How do they determine you have the qualifications for that MS as opposed to some other MS?
  7. May 2, 2017 #6
    Nothing. You just give them what the application asks for, they assess it and if they find what they are looking for, you get in. Sorry I don't really know the particulars. I really wish I knew more.

    Personally, this is my only positive option so I'm just going to make the best of it.
  8. May 2, 2017 #7
    Oh that's pretty cool so if I can justify my ability they would choose to accept or not. I like that. Because I intend to have to do a lot of the leg-work myself but if I can I'd like an avenue to pursue it more formally once I do.
  9. May 2, 2017 #8
    Pretty much. Though, you might want to check around. IMO, it depends on what your accolades are, despite a disclaimer that most US unis give that you shouldn't shy away if your application is slightly weak as it will be considered holistically. If you were a straight A student and have several research papers they may have to find somebody better to be able to turn you down. Obviously, though, you won't get into a hard science graduate program with degrees in a soft science program. Anyway, since you seem to be in IT I'd recommend asking about.
  10. May 2, 2017 #9
    Yes, my degrees are from over 10 years ago, so I don't think they'd care either way what I studied, I'm running under the assumption that as a hobby I want to thoroughly study the Tokamak, magnetic confinement, and Nuclear Physics emphasis on fusion. My goal is to have sufficient understanding that I can at least debate and discuss it at a higher level.

    If I can achieve that, I have a fuzzy idea of "where could I go from there"?

    I've never applied for a graduate program, but the idea of being able to apply for one, or ask for a paneled interview, would be appealing since I don't like arbitrary ceilings to progressing myself.
  11. May 2, 2017 #10
    Well my last post is as far as my knowledge goes. Maybe you should make your own thread so the people here, more knowledgeable than myself, can address what needs to be made clear.
  12. May 2, 2017 #11
    Well don't short yourself you've been encouraging! I'll continue to formulate questions as time goes on. Looking forward to you detailing your experiences as they come.
  13. May 2, 2017 #12


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    Just look at the history. We've been working on controlled nuclear fusion for 80 years or so, and the closest we have today is the ITER machine which is under construction in France. It will probably achieve a net energy release, but it is a huge, complex, expensive machine which will never generate electricity. It's not clear whether a path exists for converting it to an economically feasible reactor. Even if it can eventually be made economically feasible, it will still generate large quantities of radioactive waste as the neutron activated components of the reactor need to be replaced. There will also be a large inventory of radioactive tritium on the site of an eventual reactor. While it is true that the waste produced is probably smaller in quantity and less long-lived than fission reactor waste, it is still substantial. Why would you think that the public opposition to fission reactors because of the radioactive waste issue will not apply to an eventual fusion reactor? Then there is the inertial confinement approach, which was dealt a major blow when the NIF facility failed to achieve ignition. Third, there are a lot of small-scale approaches in the news, but nobody has come close to achieving energy generating conditions, despite all of the hype.

    I don't mean to be pessimistic, and I think we should keep working on it, I just wouldn't stake my career on it.
  14. May 2, 2017 #13
    Glad to be of help. But again, I'd recommend asking about. What you described prior about self-studying Tokamak, magnetic confinement and nuclear physics as a hobby will probably not be taken as seriously as actually going through a degree program that covers all that. At least that is what I understood when I made an earlier post posing slightly different aspirations that I claimed I would self study for.
  15. May 2, 2017 #14
    I was asking for your recommendation for me personally. How should I branch out? What all should I specialize in? Is it possible for me to have an opening into the nuclear fusion field while keeping other options open as well so that I don't end up staking my career on a dud?
  16. May 2, 2017 #15


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    Well, nuclear fission is still an economically viable enterprise, but I'm not sure of its future. If you were to focus automated control of equipment and instrumentation, this will be applicable to almost any industry, and with automation increasing almost everywhere, it seems to me like a sure bet.
  17. May 2, 2017 #16
    Any other viable options with great opportunity within this degree that I should keep in mind? Also should I try to make sure I have a more broad knowledge base? For example, covering greater variety of subjects or focus on subjects that could address a key topic from various angles? I would personally like to have greater variety and a knowledge base but want to avoid a 'Jack of all, Master of none' situation.
  18. May 2, 2017 #17


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    Instrumentation and control is a great career. I work in instrumentation in a national lab and I get to work on a wide variety of projects (even got to do a little bit of work for the National Ignition Facility). While you're getting your MS I would make sure you get as broad an education as you can, rather than a deep dive in one arcane detector system or other. For example, there is always need for people who can do high-speed analog board design, advanced FPGA development (including multi gigabit communications) and real-time control software.

    You can learn all of these things or a subset of them while you study nuclear instrumentation. Strong EE skills with a reasonable background in the science makes for a winning combination.

    The key to not being a "Jack of All Trades" is to pick a specialty (where YOU are the expert) and then be as broad as possible as well so you can chip in where needed. I can tell you from experience that one area where scientific instrumentation differs a lot from product development in industry is that people are much less specialized in the national labs and universities because every project requires something a bit different.

    So, in a nutshell, have one thing where you are the go-to person but be able to do most of the jobs in a pinch. I'm an analog designer, and in fact I specialize in one particular kind of circuit, but in the last year I spent several months writing Python software for hardware testing because that was what was needed. Be broad AND deep.

    Also, University of Florida is a great school. I know several engineers who went there and they all received top-notch educations.
  19. May 2, 2017 #18
    I don't think UF does nuclear fusion research but they do alot of nuclear fission research; they do perform plasma physics research in their ME department though.
  20. May 3, 2017 #19
    A question in general, should I go all the way to P.hD level?

    I actually was going through Google prior to posting and went through a few thread on these forums regarding nuclear engineering. Some mentioned that going all the way benefits even more than does a BS/MS.

    A bit of forewarning, my reply to you might be a bit of a rant of my personal dilemma.

    Anyway, what you said sounds nice but not having been where you are, I don't know if you actually get to pitch in ideas or work for ideas that can actually benefit people.

    Allow me to clarify; as I said before I want to innovate for the sake of helping people, even those on the fringes of society with few opportunities for a higher standard of living. Throughout my BS, the curriculum made it seem as if general EE is more concerned about reconfiguring and optimizing the same old technology to achieve greater efficiency. While it's true that the jump from analog to digital technology has made for greater efficiency so that certain modes of communication and data transmission are possible, it just feels like this is not anything particularly ground breaking. If companies are able to standardize, make and sell general purpose quantum computers, that feels like it would be truly groundbreaking. Regardless, it doesn't really help the poor living in third world countries who do not have enough to even buy a cheap mobile phone let alone access to electricity.

    I was just hoping there would be a little more optimism for fusion. For starters it seemed like it would help those poor people as well as pave the way for new technologies. But of course, there is always the issue of who will finance the requisite projects and who will bother completing them and of course it is only pollution free in theory...

    Anyway, sorry for the rant. I hope you understand where I am coming from. What you guys suggest sounds more stable but I have not yet been able to see how I would be able to help people by doing that.

    Is it just me or does Mechanical engineering get the most variety out of all the engineering branches? They seem to have the easiest time getting and doing interdisciplinary work. They seem to go everywhere from nanotechnology to general electrical such as efficient batteries.
  21. May 3, 2017 #20
    For alot of the same reasons as you I did research in nuclear fusion when I was an undergrad in a physics department and was able to work with people at Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory and at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in England, there's alot more optimism in the fusion community and alot more pessimism in the general community outside; and not to talk smack but physicsforums for whatever reason tends to attract scientific pessimists so I would take people's comments with a grain of salt. If you wanted to enter the field from the EE standpoint, University of Wisconsin-Madison's EE program does fusion research along with their Nuclear Engineering and physics department among other good schools like U-Michigan and U-Washington among others. There are other more established fields of energy production that have potential to help people though, and in general there's not much need to fix what isn't broken; that's why fusion reactors are still just going to be heat sources to turn turbines and there isn't much research into direct energy conversion. Fusion probably has the biggest potential payoff among all the potential energy sources though, even people who do research in solar and other more popular renewables will say as much, but it needs to work first.

    And yeah I double majored in physics and EE and if I could do it again I'd probably do it in ME since it's the most general engineering major as what they study (mechanics, thermo, fluids, materials, controls) has hands in almost every industry.
  22. May 3, 2017 #21


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    I'm not necessarily pessimistic about the technical aspects of achieving controlled fusion, I just don't see it being accepted in our society. The OP says he wants to help poor people living in third world countries, who don't have access to electricity. This is a noble goal. But ask yourself, why isn't nuclear fission giving those people access to electricity today? In the early days of nuclear fission, people said it would be "too cheap to meter". What happened? The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, fission reactors are large and capital intensive, and second, people are afraid of the radiation and radioactive waste. How will nuclear fusion be any better? If we had a working tokamak today, which third world country would undertake building it to give their citizens access to electricity?
  23. May 3, 2017 #22
    Though they are inherently dangerous, I think people are afraid of fission reactors because of bad press and the spreading of mis-information which adds to over-regulation and making the venture more and more cost prohibitive to so much as open new plants; though disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima are important reminders of the need for good engineering.

    You've artificially limited the scope of your questions with regards to fusion such that no answers other than the pessimistic ones can be given.

    Nuclear fusion doesn't have the waste of nuclear fission (not that it has no waste) and you cannot experience any sort of meltdown and parts of its fuel can be gotten from seawater, this is an inherent plus.

    Your second question can be applied to any energy source that's ever been built or ever will be built; so it effectively means nothing, any new technology will be cost prohibitive when it's first developed and will be eventually made cheap as it becomes more and more routine.
  24. May 3, 2017 #23


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    I think the OP could "help people" more directly by addressing the bigger issues facing the poor: income inequality, lack of human rights, lack of access to health care and education, and food insecurity. Lack of fusion-based electricity seems like a pretty distant contender...

    Indeed, the standard of living of the world's poor has been growing in leaps and bounds over the last several decades, as engineers reconfigure and optimize the old technology. Cost reductions and shrinks are what gets technology into the hands of the poor. Only by optimizing technology can we shift manufacturing and development offshore.

    We've cut extreme poverty by a large amount over the last few decades: http://www.politifact.com/global-ne...-really-reduce-extreme-poverty-half-30-years/

    The world middle class is exploding in size and affluence (http://www.bbc.com/news/business-22956470) due to globalization and technology transfer. If you want to help the most people, fight for free trade and against nationalist policies in western democracies (even if it hurts your own personal prospects).

    If you want to help people, fusion research probably isn't the way to do it. We're going in the right direction, but there is so much more work to be done.
  25. May 3, 2017 #24


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    I agree completely. What makes you think fusion will be different?

    The waste is still substantial, and I think more than enough to frighten the people who are frightened by fission waste. As regards a 'meltdown', what happens to a tokamak if the superconducting magnet goes normal and all of the stored magnetic energy gets dumped. I'll bet an accident that releases a substantial amount of radiation in the form of tritium and the tritium breeding blanket is distinctly possible. Also, pebble bed fission reactors can't melt down, but I don't see people rushing to build these.
  26. May 3, 2017 #25
    I tried University of Wisconsin. Didn't get in. I didn't consider U-Michigan and U-Washington for monetary reasons.

    Another question is what to do when the demand for power is far in excess of the supply. Besides everybody is on about carbon footprints, using renewables and how non-renewables cause severe air and chemical pollution but no one seems to be in a rush to change that. I believe it is more an issue of money and complacency, in general.

    I also agree there may be spread of misinformation. There was a bit of an incident in Southern India a while back where the government was basically ready to build a fission reactor to meet the power needs of the locals but then out of nowhere people who you wouldn't expect to have the slightest clue about what a reactor is or what it does started protesting lead by one or two who may have had some semblance of it. There is the possibility of exploitation of the locals, so I won't hold it against them but I get it was more spread of misinformation than exploitation.

    If I had the skilll to make even the slightest dent any of those problems I would probably have more friends, know where to go, what to do, which strings to pull to get what I want and fewer social issues. I chose science because I like dealing with logical components. Once you figure out what goes how, it's always that way. People are confusing. Some so much that you can't tell when they'll praise you and when they'll lash out at you for the same thing.
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