Fellowship a boost for budding energy researchers

Sept. 2, 2010

by Chris Barncard

A pair of young fusion researchers will be working with the support of the Department of Energy as they work on graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Carson Cook and Lauren Garrison were among 150 graduate students tapped this summer for Department of Energy Graduate Fellowships in Science, Mathematics and Engineering, providing them with $50,500 each year for as many as three years to cover tuition, living expenses and research materials and travel.

"This opens up more opportunities," says Garrison, a Charleston, Ill., native who just finished her master's degree in UW-Madison's nuclear and engineering physics program. "There's the added benefit of a research allowance, which is support for supplies and traveling to conferences — things that wouldn't be covered by a teaching assistant or research assistant position."

The two UW-Madison students, selected from more than 3,000 applicants, stand out in the shared goal of their research. The Department of Energy selected the first in what it hopes to be an annual class of graduate fellows from across the spectrum of energy-related research, including physics, chemistry, biology, math, engineering, and environmental and computer sciences.

Both Cook and Garrison are working on how to confine the searing hot plasma used in fusion reactors, which would harness large amounts of energy released as atomic nuclei are fused together (rather than split apart as in nuclear fission reactors already in service).

An electrical engineer from Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cook is studying computational plasma physics with UW-Madison engineering professor David T. Anderson and working with a pair of researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory on software called SIESTA that monitors and controls powerful magnetic fields.

"The SIESTA code I am working on will be used to analyze experimental machines which are looking into aspects of confining the plasma for (the fusion) process, and it will also be used to help model and create new machines and configurations for larger-scale devices into the future," Cook says.

Garrison, who works in UW-Madison nuclear engineering professor Gerald Kulcinski's lab, tortures small samples of tungsten with heat and radiation in search of the best container for ongoing fusion reactions.

"It's one of the unanswered questions: What material will be used in what is called the 'first wall,' the interface with the plasma?" Garrison says. "There are still many obstacles. We're still trying to understand what processes go on in the tungsten in those conditions."

Both students attended a conference for the first class of graduate fellows at Argonne National Lab this summer.

"They did a great job organizing it," Garrison says. "Even though everyone's research is so much different, it keeps you excited about what you're doing and thinking about how you're contributing to the world even if you're not working on something like a miracle cure."

The Department of Energy Graduate Fellowships are funded in part by $12.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.