Whitman alumnus speaks on the future of fusion

Goldie Cameron, News Reporter

On April 13, science educator and alum Harry Kelso ’20 presented to the Whitman Innovation Network (WIN) on his path post graduation and his recent projects. Kelso has worked for several fusion energy projects, including the multinational ITER project at Princeton Plasma Laboratories. Graduating with a film and media studies major, he is now working in the communications department at Columbia University.

“I’ve always been a fan of renewables ever since I first learned about global warming in the third grade. I think fusion offers them a saving grace. Renewables will get us a long way toward full decarbonization, but their intermittence and storage issues highlight how difficult it will be to decarbonize industrial sectors like steel and concrete production that are incredibly energy intensive,” Kelso said. “Renewables are great in micro-grids, on rooftops, sunny spaces, windy places and more. Fusion and other base load energy sources can provide 24/7 energy wherever it is needed. That, to me, sounds like a winning combo.”

Fusion occurs when two atoms combine to form a new atom. The formation of a new atom releases vast amounts of energy. The first fusion experiments were conducted in the 1930s, and since then, scientists believe they are on the threshold of harnessing fusion power to generate electricity as a sustainable energy source.

Sophomore Lucas Turco, a member of the Whitman Innovation Network, attended Kelso’s presentation.

“It was nice to talk to someone with personal experience in the fusion energy field,” Turco said. “I’m interested in nuclear technology, but it often feels very far away, like something that is happening but not something people are working on.”

During his talk, Kelso shared a lot about current developments within the fusion power sector, including some of the challenges.

“Right now, the twin technical challenges to overcome are plasma control and material strength. Plasma is the fourth state of matter – more energetic than solids, liquids or gasses – where fusion takes place. Lightning and neon signs are common examples of plasma on Earth,” Kelso said. “However, to generate sustained fusion reactions in a plasma is extremely hard. Plasma physicists often compare the task to trying to lift jelly with a rubber band. It’s hard.”

Kelso is currently pursuing a graduate program in scientific writing at Columbia University, and he hopes to continue working within the fusion sector that has caught his interest. He was more than excited to give this presentation, looking to inspire others to look at the potential of this field.

“What I find most inspiring and most meaningful about fusion is its ubiquity. Fusion is the reason you and I exist, and everything else in the world,” Kelso said. “We’re all the product of eons of fusion reactions built into more complex elements.”

With the ongoing global push towards renewable energy, Kelso believes that fusion power is key to achieving a sustainable and carbon-free future. 

“Fusion is the fundamental energy of the cosmos. To harness that energy, the very foundation of our origin, would be astronomically profound,” Kelso said. “Fusion is the story of who we are and where we are going.”

Kelso shared his insights on the potential of fusion energy to revolutionize the way we power our world. Throughout the talk, students were engaged and asked many thoughtful questions, demonstrating a keen interest in the potential of fusion energy.