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Finding Alternative Energy in France

April 22, 2016

Matthew Parsons
Matthew Parsons

Physics alumnus Matthew Parsons '15 is the recipient of a Fulbright research grant that will allow him to investigate an alternative energy source, "fusion energy," at the ITER Project in Southern France — an international collaboration of researchers from 35 different countries.

Parsons, who works at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), is currently studying fusion energy as a means to rectify the planet's growing energy crisis.

So what is fusion energy, exactly? Parsons explains the more familiar concept of nuclear power first:

"Conventional nuclear power utilizes nuclear fission to produce energy. By splitting large atoms like uranium into smaller atoms, we can use the huge amounts of heat given off to generate electricity," Parsons explains.

"Nuclear fusion is the opposite process, where we take smaller atoms (like hydrogen) and 'fuse' them together into larger atoms. This process also releases energy, and it's actually what happens in stars," he says. "The goal of fusion energy research is to develop the science and technology we need to actually use fusion to produce electricity."

Parsons says fusion is an ideal way to create electricity because it doesn't produce carbon emissions. The process involves heating hydrogen atoms until they reach a completely new state of matter called plasma, or a "soup of positive and negative charges," as Parsons describes.

"The hydrogen you need [to do this] can be taken from seawater, so there is enough fuel to last for ages — and there are no long-lived radioactive byproducts like you would get from fission," he says.

But the plasma created from this process isn't easy to handle. In fact, it's incredibly hot (millions-of-degrees hot), making it very difficult to work with. Even the smallest disturbances can have great effects on the experiment.

Parsons' research at PPPL uses a computational technique called machine learning to predict the behavior of fusion plasmas.

"If the techniques that I'm developing to identify large-scale disturbances can be applied successfully to experiments that are in operation all around the world right now, then the hope is that they can also be used in the next generation of fusion experiments."

As Parsons gets ready to take his knowledge and experience abroad, he says he's looking forward to the open spaces and mountain ranges in the South of France — and thankful for the resources and mentorship he's received at Drexel.

"The Office of Undergraduate Research…helped fund my first co-op at PPPL and without their contribution, I certainly would not be where I am now," he says. "The Fellowships Office also played a prominent role in my undergraduate career. Working with them has been an absolute pleasure and is probably one of the things that I have enjoyed the most as a student. Rona Buchalter, Cynthia Oka and Meredith Wooten have all contributed to my fellowship applications more than I could possibly thank them for; the Fulbright award reflects their support as much as it suggests anything else."

Want to learn more about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program? Visit the Drexel Fellowships Office website for more information.