Jonathan Coburn '09

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Coburn ‘09 heading to France on nuclear fusion research fellowship

This November, Jonathan Coburn ’09 is heading to France for a prestigious two-year research opportunity with ITER (www.iter.org), an international collaboration seeking to advance nuclear fusion energy technology.

Today, nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, the process of splitting atoms such as uranium to generate electricity. These plants provide an efficient source of steady, carbon-free electricity at the cost of generating hazardous, long-lived nuclear waste. ITER is working on electricity generation using cleaner nuclear fusion, the same reaction that occurs in the sun and stars, which fuses lighter atoms together to produce energy. Harnessing this source would provide the world a more sustainable form of energy, but scientists have yet to manage the many challenges of building a reactor capable of producing net fusion energy.

ITER is trying by building the world’s largest tokamak, a machine designed to safely contain and sustain the high-temperature, high-pressure reaction and capture the energy from nuclear fusion. ITER aims to be the first reactor to produce net energy from fusion.

Every two years, ITER selects five young scientists worldwide to train in specialized research areas in the field of fusion science and technology as part of the Principality of Monaco/ITER Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“It feels like the dream fellowship to me,” Coburn said. He will be working with ITER as the United States representative.

Coburn’s project is to be computational work, simulating what happens in the tokamak when high heat and particle fluxes impact the walls of the machine. “There are a lot of complicated processes that lead to walls degrading,” Coburn said. “So I will be trying to model that using a handful of codes.”

Coburn, from Washington, N.C., is a Ph.D. candidate at N.C. State, preparing to submit his final dissertation this October. A student in the nuclear engineering department, he is currently wrapping up his research as an intern with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He is studying advanced plasma-facing materials, hoping to figure out which materials demonstrate the best anti-erosion properties under reactor conditions.

“It’s really nice because [the fellowship] lines up well with my Ph.D. research that I’ve been doing,” Coburn said.

When he started as an undergrad at N.C. State, Coburn knew he wanted to do some sort of engineering, but he wasn’t quite sure what. As he wandered around an N.C. State engineering career fair, a big picture of a nuclear reactor caught his attention.

“As I went through the nuclear engineering undergrad program, I decided that I wanted to stray away a bit from studying nuclear fission power plants and focus more on nuclear fusion,” Coburn said. “It was really about senior year of undergrad when I decided that my ultimate goal was going to be to try to work on the ITER fusion device that was being planned.”

During his time at NCSSM, he said, he had the opportunity to take a variety of math and physics courses that helped fuel his interest in engineering. As Coburn says, the school motto, “Accept the greater challenge,” has stuck with him and propels him to pursue the leading edge of nuclear engineering.