In this interview we hear from Professor George R. Tynan, distinguished Professor of Engineering Sciences with the UC San Diego Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Editor-in-Chief of our open access journal Discover Energy, about his research and how it contributes to achieving the SDGs and more.
There are several aspects to my own research. First, I study several fundamental physics processes that emerge out of the development of controlled nuclear fusion as an energy source. I am most well-known for my studies of how the hot fusion fuel – known as plasma – escapes the magnetic trap that we build to confine it. This escape occurs primarily by a turbulent mixing process driven by the spatial density and temperature gradients that inherently exist in a confined fusion plasma. Interestingly, this turbulence can also drive a spontaneous self-organization process that then reacts back on the turbulence and, in some cases, lead to the emergence of a new, much more quiescent state. This new state has a significantly lower rate of turbulence-induced transport, and thus the plasma thermal confinement is increased. As higher thermal confinement brings the fuel closer to the state of energy breakeven, this physics process is of significant practical interest. In addition, I am also very interested in how the plasma interacts with and modifies or damages the material wall that surrounds the fusion fuel. In recent years, I’ve shifted more of my focus onto this challenge, and I expect that this will continue into the future.
Beyond my work on controlled fusion, I am also very interested in teaching undergraduate and graduate students about the need for and the challenge of deep decarbonization of the energy system. I introduce students to the fundamentals of climate change; the energy system organization including primary energy sources, energy carriers and storage, and energy services; anticipated growth in future energy demand; technology options for decarbonization and their outlook; and the development, deployment and diffusion of new technologies into the market. It is my hope that by making students aware of these interlinked issues, they can then become change-makers and help realize a world that meets the needs of the entire human population while doing so in a sustainable manner that leaves a viable environment for the future.
It is difficult to pin it down to just a few. The provision of clean and ubiquitous energy services to the entire human population undergirds most of the SDGs – e.g. hunger, health and well-being are strongly influenced by energy access as it can enable clean water, save labor providing children with an opportunity to attend school, and provide the basis to power a well-developed economy.
The most direct measures include looking at improvements in the access to energy services for the poorest regions of the world and an adoption of zero-carbon energy sources in the developed world while, at the same time, bending the curve of CO2 emissions onto the necessary downward trajectory.
The pandemic and associated facilities closures forced our group to focus on data analysis and writing tasks for several months and so from that perspective there were some benefits. Upon reopening we have managed to resume productive experimental work, albeit with the expected restrictions arising from social distancing requirements. Beyond that, the pandemic has shifted much of the research community focused activities such as seminars, workshops, and conferences on-line. I have attended several international conferences that we all held remotely, and although the delivery of presentations continues unabated and unobstructed, the remote format also makes the numerous informal meetings and conversations with colleagues nearly impossible. That has, in my view, been a very significant loss, and reduces the chances for the emergence of new ideas out of those types of informal meetings.
I think the traditional peer-reviewed literature is still the best tool for colleague-to-colleague communication of scientific and scholarly work; the advent of open access policies is, I think, a very good development so as to make that work available to everyone. For communicating with the public and policy makers, I think the adoption of social media can be very effective to propagating exciting new developments widely and quickly, and provides a good complement to the more traditional popular press and media.
If the target audience is a professional one, then I believe the traditional conferences and workshops are a proven way; the advent of ubiquitous videoconferencing opens the door for virtual and hybrid modalities which can increase access to such events. However, I also believe that informal in-person one-on-one conversations between colleagues has a very high value, and that cannot be experienced except by being in the same place at the same time. But who knows – perhaps some new technology based immersive experience could even obviate that need?
If the target audience is either the public or policy makers, then I think adoption of a mix of social media, popularly oriented talks such as TED Talks, along with print and streamed content is probably the most effective tool. Here the goals are to first inform these stakeholders, and then hopefully provide them with sufficient understanding so that they see the value in the research being carried out with their financial and moral support.
Early career researchers build their impact by first carrying out ground-breaking and leading research. That is enabled first by equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to be at the leading edge of their fields, and then by connecting them and building relationships with those with the resources to support their work. I think, at least the in US, we do a good job at the first part, but the second is almost always left to individuals to try and work out. I think we’d do everyone a favor by having a more coherent approach to this latter issue.
As the entity charged with organizing and maintaining archival peer-reviewed literature, publishers working with their editors and editorial boards first-and-foremost have a key role in ensuring a quality and rigorous review process so that the best possible quality work makes it into the public forum where ideas compete with each other and, eventually, some reasonable approximation of a true and correct understanding of important issues and questions emerges. Out of that winnowing process, this understanding can then drive key decisions on e.g. resources, policies, and business practices that then have an impact on the future.
About George R. Tynan
Professor George R. Tynan is Distinguished Professor of Engineering Sciences with the UC San Diego Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and holds the Kazuo Iwama Endowed Chair. His current research is focused on the plasma physics of controlled nuclear fusion as an energy source. He is investigating how solid material surfaces interact with the boundary region of fusion plasmas, and how the materials are modified by that interaction. He is also interested in the larger issue of transitioning to a sustainable energy economy based upon a mixture of efficient end use technologies, large scale deployment of renewable energy sources, and incorporation of a new generation of nuclear technologies such as advanced fission and fusion reactor systems, and developed and teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses focused on these topics.