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Nuclear Careers in Energy Science: Feature Index

The fundamentals of energy production have changed little since higher apes first learned to heat and cook with fire. Although nuclear fission, photovoltaics, wind, and water now meet a small portion of the world population's energy needs, humans today get most of our energy the same way the cave people did: directly from the sun or from fire. The only things that have changed are what we choose to burn and how cleverly we burn it.

Concerns about global warming and oil's imminent demise have caused scientists and policy-makers to look for solutions in both the future and the past: to new technologies such as nuclear fusion, multijunction photovoltaics, and fuel cells--and to traditional energy sources such as water power, wind power, and (sustainable) biomass cultivation (coupled with clean and energy-efficient combustion). Because of the variety of possibilities, Next Wave thinks it's a very good time to consider starting a career in energy science--hence the focus of this feature.


Perhaps the best illustration of such a career's promise is offered in our lead editorial, by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Abraham lays out an ambitious, detailed agenda for the U.S.'s energy future--a plan that will rely heavily on the contributions of young scientists, today and into the future.

The first major noncombustion energy source to hit the scene was nuclear fission. Fission is an emission-free technology, making it attractive in the post-Rio era, but concerns about safety and environmental impact have crippled the industry. Nevertheless, the job market for nuclear engineers is stronger than it has been in many years. And as Next Wave's Jim Austin reports, there's talk of a rebirth, thanks largely to the Department of Energy (DOE).

Fission, however, is not the only nuclear option. The binding energy curve peaks in the middle, which means that you can release energy both by splitting big atomic nuclei and by combining little ones. Scientists and policy-makers still have high hopes that fusion can deliver large amounts of cheap, clean power, but fusion's major technical hurdle--confining fusion plasmas--has proved higher than most predicted. Yet fusion power remains a major, well-funded international endeavor. We present three stories on fusion:

Anthony Webster describes his work at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire and provides an overview of the state of fusion research.

Alexander Kendl describes his work at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and explains how he got there.

Canada wants to put the Iter international fusion project in Clarington, just east of Toronto. A report from the Impact Group for Iter Canada explains why Canada wishes to host the second most expensive international research collaboration (after the International Space Station) to date.

The sun provides far more energy to Earth than does any other power source, but little of that energy is directly harnessed for human use. Spectrolab, a division of Boeing Satellite Systems, is trying to help change that. Spectrolab has been making photovoltaics pay for years by concentrating on a niche market: photovoltaic modules for space. But as Jim Austin reports, several years of incremental improvements have now made its technology competitive here on Earth.

Another energy technology that was first used in space in the 1960s--fuel cells--is also showing great promise as a source of terrestrial energy. Fuel cells extract the energy from molecular hydrogen's chemical bonds, converting it directly into electricity. Singapore's National Technology University aims to become a regional center for fuel cell science and technology.

Canada, too, wants to be an international fuel-cell player. Canada's NRC Innovation Centre is nurturing a domestic fuel cell industry by supporting early stage research, development, and deployment of fuel cell technologies.

When you build a fire you make CO2. There's no way of avoiding it. But if you only burn what you grow there's no net increase in atmospheric CO2, because the carbon contained in the plants you burn came out of the atmosphere. Lars Degenhardt and Marianne Karpenstein-Machan describe a project they work on that aims to fuel a whole German village-- Jühnde, in Lower Saxony--entirely from renewable agricultural products grown with environment-friendly cultivation techniques.

Sven Achtermann of Laatzen, a small city near Hannover, Germany, loves his job, which recently has included overseeing the rebuilding of Laatzen's public baths to use the latest in clean and efficient energy technologies.

In a suite of companion pieces, Next Wave's sister site GrantsNet describes DOE's Graduate Research Environmental Fellowship program, profiles one of its participants, and describes DOE's role in plant genomics research.

Finally, Next Wave presents a long list of funding, research, training, and employment resources to help you get started in your energy science career.