Info for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

William & Mary physicist invited to White House fusion energy summit

  • saskia_portrait475.jpeg
    Saskia Mordijck  William & Mary fusion physicist Saskia Mordijck will take a brief leave from her plasma experiments to attend the White House Summit “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” on March 17.  Photo by Adrienne Berard
Photo - of -

William & Mary physicist Saskia Mordijck will be among the scientists, industry leaders and government officials at a March 17 White House Summit dedicated to discussions of forging a new national strategy for fusion energy.

“Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” is hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm tops the list of event leaders.

Mordijck is one of the nation’s leading experts on fusion energy as well as on plasma, the fourth state of matter that is a vital aspect of fusion energy. An assistant professor in William & Mary’s Department of Physics, she will be flying to the White House Summit from Los Angeles where she is conducting experiments using the LArge Plasma Device (LAPD) at UCLA.

The White House describes the event as a gathering of “fusion energy leaders from government, industry, academia, and other stakeholder groups to showcase progress made and have inclusive conversations about an updated fusion strategy.”

The White House events web page notes that “fusion — the same reaction that powers the sun — has the potential to be a game-changing technology to help us achieve net-zero by 2050, protect energy security, and enhance U.S. technology leadership.”

Mordijck currently serves as vice president of the Fusion University Association and was invited to the White House Summit in that capacity.

“Universities are not only the natural place to do workforce development, but most of the private companies currently at the forefront of the race to fusion energy in the U.S. are all start-ups founded by scientists at universities, based on the research they performed at these institutions,” she said. “Universities are an ideal interdisciplinary community for innovative ideas to flourish as they typically have more freedom for exploration.”

The benefits of commercial energy are many. It would be a safe, clean, efficient, carbon-free method of generating electric power. But there are a number of scientific and engineering challenges that must be solved before the nation’s power grid begins carrying power from commercial fusion plants.

The White House notes that the summit comes at a time of recent scientific advances that have begun to address some of the knottier challenges of fusion energy. Mordijck explained that many of those advances are related to the development of more powerful magnets. Powerful magnets are used to contain super-hot plasmas in fusion reactors, known as tokomaks.

“There are other advances with respect to protecting the walls of the container from high-heat fluxes that have been developed and are being tested currently in devices,” she said. “There also has been progress in the passive and active control of the plasmas — and we have become better at predicting performance.”

Mordijck said the U.S. has not built a large magnetic-bases fusion device for a long time — a few decades. She added that the technological challenges can only be addressed by building fusion reactors that can create conditions that U.S. scientists can’t currently study. Mordijck said that both the Department of Energy and the National Academy of Science have released plans to develop a new U.S. prototype fusion reactor.

“One of the main recommendations is to leverage public-private partnerships,” she said. “In the last decade, spurred by the potential of new, stronger magnets and the need to develop clean energy solutions, investment in private fusion companies has accelerated.”

While Mordijck is at the White House Summit, a William & Mary undergraduate, Leo Murphy ’24, will continue work at the LAPD. She said another W&M undergrad, Jameson Crouse ’22, is on spring break in Los Angeles, and might visit the lab.

She said the White House Summit provides visibility for the fusion work being done at universities and also extends William & Mary’s reach by highlighting the university’s standing in the fusion community.

“It will be an excellent opportunity to network with government officials and private companies who are all interested in making fusion energy happen,” she said.