Andrea Kritcher has done something that seemed impossible: Conducted a successful laboratory test that showed that fusion energy could work.
Andrea Kritcher. Photo courtesy of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Imagine, controlling the same process that powers the stars we see in the sky and in doing so, producing carbon-free, clean, safe and abundant energy here on Earth.
That’s the dream of scientists all over the world. And you might say that it is Andrea Kritcher’s day job. Kritcher works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California where she researches high-energy density plasma physics.
There, Kritcher directs experiments that utilize the National Ignition Facility, the largest laser in the world, to try and reach extreme plasma conditions.
Her job is to run complex plasma physics calculations that set the input conditions for such experiments. In doing so she actively works toward developing the large-scale technologies that will someday influence climate change.
Thus far, her most renowned accomplishment has been her work as lead designer of the Hybrid-E experiments (for high-yield big-radius implosion design), which achieved inertial confinement fusion ignition — in short, it produced more energy than it consumed.
This is the essence of fusion energy — combining two lighter atoms to form a new, heavier one, which then releases energy.
“I realized that I could make a contribution to fusion energy as a proton would be a potential clean, limitless source of energy someday,” Kritcher said. “So the Hybrid-E experiment is a big step in that direction to someday being able to attain carbon-free energy sources.” Originally from Michigan, Kritcher had always envisioned herself becoming an engineer because of her state’s automotive engineering reputation and her love for complex mathematics.
Fusion over fission
Upon attending the University of Michigan where she earned her undergraduate degree, she realized engineering was primarily based on simple mathematics.
She was more interested in pursuing something more intellectually challenging.
This revelation led her to the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering.
Achieving fusion ignition is a huge milestone in producing clean energy. Fusion energy is renewable, and unlike fission, which powers nuclear reactors, it does not produce radioactive waste or cause environmental harm.
There are many more engineering advancements to be made before fusion ignition can be realized as a renewable energy source.
Fusing tiny particles to produce a giant supply of energy
Currently, Kritcher and the rest of the laboratory are working with private fusion energy companies in order to begin the process of overcoming many of the obstacles that lie ahead.
“I’ve been working on Hybrid-E for many years, probably six or seven years now and other designs before that,” Kritcher said. “When we first started, we got good results and people that I didn’t work with, like my friends, family and people from back at home, started hearing about it.”
Kritcher’s team had first seen good results as COVID-19 swept through the nation. However, as the pandemic diffused across the country, so did news of the Hybrid-E experiment’s successes. As Kritcher was flooded with words of encouragement and energized by the prospect of giving people hope during a hopeless time, she realized how important her work was, even if it would take a millenia to complete.
It was this occurrence that made her realize the sheer enormity of what she was doing and the massive impact she could have in combating the climate crisis.
For Kritcher, finding a source of clean energy means creating a better future for her three children.
“[People of the present] care about keeping the planet clean for our next generations, but it really hits home when you have three children and they’re gonna have children and they’re gonna have children,” Kritcher said. “I won’t even be here, but I want to maintain a clean, beautiful planet for all of the generations to come. It’s very important to me that we don’t screw it up for our kids and their kids.”
Through her climate change work, Kritcher has come to realize that what she does is no longer about solving a physics problem, but about the importance of providing clean energy. When she began her career in nuclear engineering, she had simply never anticipated the degree by which she would influence the world.
Through her work, Kritcher hopes to provide a basis for future research, creating something that will continue to be built upon. Furthermore, Kritcher plans to mentor others working in her field and instigate a legacy of change not just in the present, but in the future.
Three questions to consider:
- Why are so many scientists trying to create fusion energy?
- Why would fusion energy be good for the environment?
- Can you see yourself as a climate scientist? What would you study?
Ivy Lam is a current senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a student journalist and an active volunteer within her community. She serves as the senior feature editor of her school’s award-winning news publication, Eagle Eye News, president of her National Honor Society Chapter and senator of her senior class. Additionally, Ivy is recognized as a Questbridge Finalist, a Miami Heat Ambassador and an MLK Scholar. She hopes to integrate her interests in business, research and public policy at the University of Florida where she will double major in Finance and Journalism on a pre-law track.
Andie Korenge is a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who is interested in journalism, reading and music. A published writer for The Parklander Magazine, she greatly enjoys engaging her interests through her writing. Furthermore, she enjoys exploring relevant issues through her work as a Feature editor, particularly problems that directly affect the people in her community. Outside of journalism, Andie often spends her free time playing guitar or hanging out with friends and family.
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