Brendan Sporer and Akash Shah won a graduate student competition hosted by ORFEAS, Schmidt Futures, and Kyle Schiller that aimed to explore fusion reactor technologies to support the White House’s Bold Decadal Vision goal of a prototype fusion powerplant by 2032.
Brendan, who hails from Pennsylvania, pursued his undergraduate degree in Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering at Penn State. During this time, he became interested in nuclear fusion energy, leading him to continue that pursuit in graduate school for his thesis topic in Ryan McBride’s pulsed-power lab. Brendan has also published independent research on a type of electromagnetic confinement for fusion. Akash is from Nairobi, Kenya, and pursued degrees in physics and mathematics at the University of Southern California. While there, he developed a particular interest in clean energy solutions and decided to work on nuclear fusion with Dr. Ryan McBride. He has now received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and works for Zap Energy, a fusion company in Seattle. Both of them have received fellowships from the Michigan Institute of Plasma Science and Engineering (MIPSE) and have served as graders/unofficial tutors for students and fellow lab mates in graduate-level NERS classes.
Brendan and Akash come from a background in plasma physics and pulsed-power, and are very passionate about fusion energy being developed to provide baseload, green energy in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Brendan said, “We hope our work in this field inspires others to assist in the pursuit of fusion energy. Meanwhile, we recognize pulsed-power as an incredibly useful tool for fundamental science of many kinds.” While pulsed-power represents one method of producing fusion energy, it is to be noted that the world’s most powerful pulsed-power machine (the Z-machine at Sandia National Labs) is oversubscribed with important work for nuclear stockpile stewardship purposes. Given the overwhelming demand for the unparalleled (and expensive) Z-machine, there is a large amount of support in the fundamental science and fusion communities for a so-called “mid-scale” facility (10-15MA), to bridge the gap between the “university-scale machines” (~1-MA) and the Z-machine (20-MA). For the competition, they pitched the idea of such a machine made available as a user facility, and prioritized as a tool to support fusion science. Brendan added, “We continue to work with our colleagues in the pulsed-power community to solicit private investment for the machine, which we expect to cost on the order of $50-100 million. We are primarily working with our advisor, Dr. Ryan McBride, and Dr. Rick Spielman of the University of Rochester.” Dr. McBride, who is very proud of his students, said, “ Their vision of providing the research community with a midscale facility for fusion energy science (and science in general) is clear, honest, and practical — particularly with some of the new funding models that we have been introduced to by our private investment partners/facilitators. This is truly a student-led competition, with Akash and Brendan driving the ship. Their effort is bold, but bold efforts can lead to fantastic outcomes!” They hope to design and build the machine themselves and solicit support from private investment firms and large science organizations in the coming months.
While Akash is now a research scientist at Zap Energy, where he studies the shear-flow stabilized z-pinch as a commercial fusion reactor concept, Brendan plans to defend his thesis in the Summer of 2023 and is keeping his options open – although it is likely that he would wind up at one of the many start-up/venture capital companies that are pursuing fusion for energy production. They thanked Prof. Ryan McBride for advising them in this endeavor and for being a reputable supporter of the mid-scale facility and Dr. Rick Spielman of the University of Rochester for providing technical advice on the proposed machine and lending his support.