Sunday, July 23, 2017

Learning about nuclear fusion in the Balkan

Novi Sad is a 250,000-people city, the second-largest in Serbia. It is located on the side of the Danube river. On the other side of the river, a hill with a castle, and an amazing view of the city during sunset. It has a university with a green campus, located conveniently between the river and the city centre. The city centre is in central European style: a large, main square next to a majestic cathedral, narrow streets with cafés and bars. Last year, the city was also host to a nuclear fusion workshop, the Fusion Days@NS, an annual summer school for students wanting to learn more about nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion may well hold the key to sustainable energy production. It is the reaction that takes place on the sun, and that provides all energy on earth. Now, scientists all over the world are trying to recreate this reaction on earth to produce energy. This involves heating up plasma to 200,000,000 degrees in order to get the atoms to fuse. If scientists succeed in creating a device that would produce more energy than it uses for heating, we would have an infinite source of energy. In contrast to the atomic reactors which are currently in use, there will be much less radioactive waste, no danger of major accidents; in contrast to coal mining, a large amount of energy can be created from a small amount of matter; in contrast to natural resources such as wind or solar power the supply of energy would be continuous and reliable.
The Fusion Education Workshop lasted one week. The first three days were filled with talks, and the last two days were a hands-on workshop where students could conduct experiments, externally, on the Golem Tokamak device in Prague. The students had the possibility to perform the experiment, analyse the data, and write a report. The two best reports got a price: a two-week internship at the Tokamak Department of the Institute of Plasma Physics in Prague.
Among the students, the youngest was 16 years old, and the older students were already on the masters level. The participants for the experimental section were chosen to be gender balanced – interestingly, the two winners of the internship were girls. The talks were presented by world-leading researchers from Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Czech Republic. Between the talks by the big shots, PhD students and post-docs from seven different countries briefly presented their own stories and work, providing an insight into what one may expect if one goes on to do research in the area. Social events in the evenings allowed the workshop participants to get to know the early career researchers and ask any further questions about the academic pathway.
What does it take to organise such a workshop in a country that has no department of plasma physics or nuclear fusion? The answer is: five enthusiastic PhD students. The Fusion Education Network Team, Miloš Vlanić, Ana Kostić, Branka Vanovac, Vladica Nikolić, and Maša Šćepanović, are PhD students from the Balkan region, studying at various universities in Europe. Out of their own initiative, they decided to bring back the knowledge they acquired during their studies abroad. Not only did they take the initiative, but also organised the entire event, including invited speakers, negotiations regarding the experiment on the Golem device and the internships in Prague, and fully funded the workshop out of their own pockets.
The workshop has also taken place in the preceding year, 2015. The organiser team keeps in contact with the participants from the previous years, and supporting them in any academic endeavours. The next workshop is scheduled for September 2017, in Belgrade (Fusion Days@BG). For this year, the event is partly funded by crowd sourcing. You can back the project here:

The workshop is an excellent example of what a small group of enthusiastic early career scientist is able to achieve. The workshops simultaneously support physics students who are thinking about a career in research, build up a scientific community in an area which is not well-established in the Balkan region, and encourage future researchers to focus on an area of study which will achieve nothing less than an unlimited source of energy.

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