More than ever, the globe is in need of energy. We require a lot of energy for daily tasks, such as keeping warm and cozy in our rooms, lighting our homes, and traveling to work. To address this, an Indian scientist is creating a piece of the Sun on the Earth.
A daring traveler who prefers to take undiscovered routes. A casual sketcher who likes creating new things. A bold physicist who persists in thinking she can succeed despite setbacks. A material scientist who sees trial and error as an essential component of her discipline. A lifelong learner who treasures the lessons she has gained via her persistent efforts. Sejal Shah is a scientist at the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in Gandhinagar. She is a part of the Indian team working with partners around the world to complete an ambitious project: building a piece of the Sun on Earth. Shah uses her knowledge of physics and material science to assist in simulating the star’s core operations, reports The Print.
More than ever, the globe is in need of energy. We require a lot of energy for daily tasks, such as keeping warm and cozy in our rooms, lighting our homes, and traveling to work. Most of our energy requirements have been satisfied by fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. However, they have also led to significant emissions of greenhouse gases including methane and carbon dioxide. As a result, there is an approaching climate catastrophe and global warming. We are now searching for a cleaner energy source. As it happens, the Sun might hold the key to solving our puzzle.
Numerous other stars in the universe, including our Sun, are enormous energy generators that release energy in the form of heat and light. The most prevalent element in the universe, hydrogen gas, gathers together at high temperatures to generate stars. The core temperature of stars is approximately 15,000,000°C. Hydrogen atoms start to lose their electrons, converting to plasma, an ionized state of matter. The remaining nuclei then collide extremely quickly and combine to create helium gas. The Sun and other stars are powered by a process known as nuclear fusion that produces enormous amounts of energy. The vibrant auroras in the sky represent plasma in motion, so one need not go to the stars to observe what ionized gas is capable of. They are the result of collisions between charged solar particles and gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It is difficult to replicate nuclear fusion as it occurs in stars on Earth. We need to figure out how to generate the blazing temperatures required for atom collisions. Additionally, we need methods for producing plasma on Earth and keeping it in a lab while the nuclei collide. In the recent decades, scientists have created unique machines called tokamaks that use a strong magnetic field to contain plasma and promote nuclear fusion events. Aditya and SST-1, two tokamaks made in India, are installed at IPR. For small- and medium-sized fusion devices, they have given an invaluable insight of plasma characteristics.
There are various benefits if we can figure out how to generate more energy than tokamaks use, though. Nuclear fusion energy is cleaner than fossil fuels since it does not contain any dangerous gases or radioactive nuclides with a lengthy half-life. Hydrogen is abundant on Earth and is necessary for these processes. Fusion reactions do not produce harmful radioactive byproducts like fission does. Future cost reductions for fusion energy are expected to make it economically feasible. These reasons have inspired an international group of plasma scientists to set out on a mission to construct the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will be the largest nuclear fusion experiment ever built.
Shah is one of the numerous scientists who work on the ITER project. In her position, she applies her knowledge and skills to develop and construct a crucial part that integrates special properties of ultra-high vacuum and electrical interaction with the tokamak at ITER. She also investigates the effects of various insulator materials used in the fusion reactor’s parts on swiftly travelling neutrons. Shah’s radiation research provide information that other scientists and engineers can use to design devices like spacecraft that are frequently subjected to the same radiations.
Fuelled by dreams and passion
Shah is a member of the ITER-India team developing the diagnostic neutral beam that employs hydrogen beams to analyze the helium ash left over during fusion processes. She has created a part that creates electrical and vacuum isolation between a high voltage source, which produces hydrogen beams, and the other supporting system. Shah admits that “it wasn’t a piece of work related to physics exactly, but I took up the challenge.” She started learning about mechanical and electrical engineering using it. Together with other engineers, she redesigned the device’s component elements from scratch.
Like most scientists, Shah ran into certain obstacles while working. Her team had to figure out how to produce top-notch components for her part without compromising on quality. Before they finally tasted success, they tried many times and failed. When something went wrong, her team would sometimes construct the entire component before disassembling it. But the work paid off in the end. “It was a rewarding moment to see the entire component, which was designed and developed for over a decade, work successfully,” she shares.
Shah would not stop until she had used her knowledge of material science to the greatest extent possible in her work at ITER. She started examining how insulators employed in the tokamak’s surrounding began to react to high intensity neutron beams. After completing laboratory tests, she began collecting information on how various insulators, such as alumina, porcelain, and polymers, responded to radiation. Although scientists were aware that high intensity radiation could eventually harm these insulators, they are still looking into the specifics. These details are captured in Shah’s work. “We wanted to make a database of radiation effects on these insulators so that a scientist working with them in the future can take into account how they behave in the presence of radiation,” she explains.
Shah had lofty goals for her future as a child. Growing up in a Gujarati small town without a university presented a challenge, nevertheless. She became a physicist after making many sacrifices along the road and having a family that was highly supportive of her academic endeavors. She remembers, “my dedication pushed me in this journey and helped me achieve my goals.” Her responses to obstacles are shaped by her brave approach and passion, which she hopes will inspire others. Similar to how she seeks for uncharted territory on her travels, she discovers specialized disciplines in science that can advance India.