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Robert Spiers is UD’s first graduate student to win NNSA Stewardship Science fellowship
Robert Spiers (left) is a doctoral student at the University of Delaware, studying nuclear fusion with his mentor, Arijit Bose, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. Spiers has won support for his studies from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, including an internship at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. The cylinder on the left is the hohlraum, where laser energy is converted into X-rays, which compress a fuel capsule until it implodes, creating a high-temperature, high-pressure plasma.

Shaping a new generation of nuclear fusion researchers

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Robert Spiers is UD’s first graduate student to win NNSA Stewardship Science fellowship

Some may look for the easiest, quickest path forward. That would not be Robert “Robbie” Spiers, who is a doctoral student at the University of Delaware.

He likes to work on the tough stuff — especially if it points to great benefit for society. That’s one reason he was drawn to the research group of Arijit Bose, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. The Bose group is researching nuclear fusion as a source of clean energy.

“We tackle really hard, complicated problems in Arijit’s group,” Spiers said. “And that’s always extremely cool to me. I like the idea of looking at a problem, where it seems like there are no solutions or where it’s really, really hard to get to a solution. I enjoy the process of slowly working my way through. That’s the thrill of problem-solving.”

That’s the kind of thinking required for the studies Spiers is pursuing — nuclear fusion, using high-power lasers. But more on that later.

He now has fresh fuel for this quest, having recently won a prestigious 2023 Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

The fellowship program aims to provide professional development opportunities to students pursuing doctorates in fields that address the complex science and engineering problems faced by the NNSA.

Spiers is the first UD graduate student to win this fellowship, which comes with a $42,000 stipend this year, full tuition and fees, a $1,000 academic allowance, a 12-week research practicum at a national defense laboratory and the option to participate in a second practicum at a different national lab. The fellowship can be extended for up to four years.

Born in Idaho, Spiers earned his undergraduate degree in physics at Idaho State University, then decided to pursue graduate studies at the University of Delaware, because of its high-quality research in plasma physics. UD’s Department of Physics and Astronomy offers excellent opportunities for research in plasma fusion, laboratory astrophysics and space physics.

Spiers was drawn to the work Bose’s group was doing in inertial confinement fusion. This approach uses intense lasers to rapidly compress millimeter-size frozen hydrogen spheres, creating matter in extreme laboratory conditions, similar to what happens in the sun’s core.

At the Bose group, he is exploring what happens if strong magnetic fields are applied to these laser-driven fusion experiments.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had a great breakthrough last December, when they were the first to achieve fusion ignition that created 1.5 times more energy than was used to create the reaction.

Developing simple, affordable inertial fusion energy could one day provide all the energy the planet needs, without the environmental damage other energy options can produce. Momentum is high because of that December 2022 success, but much work remains before this can be applied to homes and businesses.

Bose’s focus has been on using magnetic fields to further boost the fusion energy gain and this approach has shown great promise for future science and energy applications.

This NNSA fellowship provides great traction for Spiers’ work.

“This is a major boost that allows me to focus on research rather than having teaching duties,” he said. 

His practicum will be next summer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the stadium-sized National Ignition Facility is located.

“They have the most energetic laser there — the size of three football fields,” he said. “I’ll be right in the heart of fusion energy research.”

Bose said Spiers has collaborated directly with experimentalists at Lawrence Livermore to help explain some of their data.

As the first graduate student to represent UD as a fellow in this program, Spiers is a pioneer of sorts.

“This lays the groundwork for a stronger collaboration with the national labs,” Bose said. “The labs are constantly recruiting talented and skilled students with training and experience in high-energy-density plasmas and this scholarship is an excellent opportunity for Robbie.”

Spiers’ fellowship started in September. Throughout the coming year, he will connect with a community of other doctoral students, program alumni, DOE laboratory staff and university researchers. Those connections, NNSA says, will benefit all of those scientists throughout their careers.

Bose and Spiers traveled to DOE’s NNSA fellowship program review in San Francisco in June and toured the Lawrence Livermore site to meet with other fellows and program coordinators.

“I was in awe of the impressive scale of Lawrence Livermore and of its ability to house 8,500-plus scientists, all working collaboratively with one another to advance their respective fields,” Spiers said. “The fellows all received a tour of the massive National Ignition Facility laser, which produced the headlines from last year and we even got to see the actual target from that historic shot.”

The NNSA oversees management of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and is keen to recruit and retain scientists with the specialized expertise needed to continue the work at the highest level.

This is of keen importance to national security and the Department of Energy.

The United States has resolved not to conduct nuclear testing and the Department of Energy’s national labs have the responsibility to ensure this stockpile would function if necessary. And facilities such as NIF allow for research on matter at extreme conditions in controlled laboratory environments.

“The use of these high-powered lasers enables innovative research by recreating many astrophysics phenomenon occurring at the solar corona,” Bose said, “including magnetic reconnection and turbulence, scaled down in space and time to the terrestrial laboratory.”

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