In 2015, history was made when the world’s leaders met in Paris to discuss climate goals and how each country can help the world reach them. Together, the 197 participating countries agreed to reduce emissions in an attempt to limit this century’s global temperature increase to just 1.5°C, beyond which climate change is expected to unleash catastrophic effects.
To achieve this ambitious goal, many countries including Singapore have turned to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. However, such sources of energy come with challenges as well—they can be expensive, harm wildlife, require large amounts of space and are dependent on the wind and the sun. To truly make a difference and reduce carbon emissions substantially, the world needs a clean and efficient source of energy.
According to A*STAR scholar Valerian Hall-Chen, the ability to harness nuclear fusion as an alternative source of power is the key to a sustainable future for Singapore and the rest of the world. Nuclear fusion works by heating light elements like isotopes of hydrogen, until they collide with enough energy to form heavier elements. With the right elements, this process creates a lot of energy without the use of fossil fuels or generating nuclear waste — a much feared risk when using older nuclear fission technology.
Despite initially working on photonics and plasmonics, Hall-Chen—currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, leveraged his background in theoretical physics to instead investigate methods to measure and interpret information from fusion plasmas. With efficient and effective techniques, Hall-Chen hopes to give researchers the tools to understand and eventually provide sustainable fusion power.
Committed to improving the lives of his fellow countrymen, Hall-Chen shares his hopes for Singapore’s future in fusion power and how he intends to help the nation get there.
1. When did you know you wanted to be a scientist and why did you choose to apply for the A*STAR National Science Scholarship?
In hindsight, I have always known that I wanted to be a scientist. I began pursuing this path seriously in secondary two, after chancing upon a popular science book on relativity in my school's library. I was left with far more questions than answers when I glimpsed the richness of physics and the natural world. It was also around this time that I learned of the A*STAR National Science Scholarship (NSS), but getting it seemed like a distant dream.
I had my first research attachment with A*STAR when I was in junior college. The joy the research work brought me reaffirmed my goal of becoming a scientist. For many of my peers, the NSS was a mark of prestige and a way to study at top overseas universities that one might not otherwise be able to afford. I acknowledge these reasons, and they have definitely rung true with me. However, for me, the NSS offered even more than that. The NSS has not only given me immense professional development, but also personal growth and independence.
2. You worked on photonics and plasmonics before focusing on nuclear fusion for your PhD. What were the factors that influenced your current research focus?
I find photonics and plasmonics to be interesting and useful fields. That being said, I noticed that there were many talented A*STAR scholars already in these fields or about to enter these fields. What is the value of yet another A*STAR scholar doing their PhD on these topics? To put it bluntly, A*STAR scholarships are expensive, and I did not think I would be worth the taxpayers' money if I stayed in the same research area, especially since there were already so many more qualified scholars and staff already in it.
Ultimately, our role as scholars is to improve the lives of Singaporeans and to bring Singaporean innovations to the world stage. To this end, we must bring knowledge, and more importantly, vision, back to Singapore—particularly to areas in which Singapore does not already have them. Nuclear fusion is one such key area. I have sought to understand the developments in fusion, such that when the technology is sufficiently mature, there will be no time wasted in alerting Singapore to the opportunities it presents.
3. What is a key problem you hope to solve with your research?
Energy—we do not have a source of energy that is clean, carbon-free, safe, reliable, able to provide the baseload, and not subject to the constraints of geography. As far as we know, nuclear fusion is the only candidate for such an energy source.
4. What is the most exciting project you are working on right now?
I am developing the theoretical tools required to understand measurements of plasma turbulence in fusion experiments. The core of such experiments regularly reaches temperatures several times hotter than the center of the sun. One cannot simply stick a probe in; indirect methods like launching microwaves into the plasma and measuring what comes out have to be used. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make sense of the data, so a thorough understanding of the physical phenomena involved is required. Our work will enable the fusion community to better understand the physics of plasma turbulence and design ways to reduce heat transport out of the core. I find this exciting because it bridges experiment, simulation, and theory—paving the way for advancements that each alone would not have been able to achieve.
5. How soon will we see a working fusion reactor? Will Singapore one day be powered by fusion energy?
The most credible—at least in my opinion—fusion start-up is Commonwealth Fusion, which was spun off from MIT. Commonwealth Fusion has set a timeline of 10 years or so to a working fusion reactor. More conservatively, the EU-Japan collaboration on the DEMOnstration power plant (DEMO) is set to start operations in approximately 30 years. China's project, the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR), is expected to have timescales between the two. That being said, the time to a reactor is likely better measured in dollars, not years.
Large projects like this are often delayed—there are bound to be unexpected complexities. Such uncertainties are not surprising, especially in a new and rapidly evolving field like fusion energy. But after roughly half a century of development, I believe that commercial fusion energy is finally on the horizon. It is my vision that not only will Singapore be powered by fusion energy, but that Singapore will power the world with fusion energy. Capable of sustainably providing the grid’s base load usage without the space requirements of solar power or the long-lived radioactive waste of today’s fission power plants, fusion power will be an integral part of addressing climate change.
6. How do you see your research evolving when you complete your PhD and return to A*STAR?
As it is, I see that the time is not yet right for Singapore to start investing heavily in fusion research. Fortunately, I am unafraid of changing fields and my rigorous training in using theoretical physics to shed light on experimental data will serve me well in A*STAR. I have not yet decided for certain what I am going to do, but I have spoken with various researchers in A*STAR and there are many avenues I can take to contribute to Singapore in the next five years. I also intend to keep a metaphorical finger in the fusion pie, to prepare for the day when A*STAR will start a Fusion Energy Institute.