When the news spread that the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) had acquired the only ion beam accelerator in the Netherlands, the institute’s fusion energy and solar fuel researchers were excited. But so was another unexpected group: the renowned Dutch flower industry. “It surprised me a lot when the flower industry showed interest in the accelerator,” said Dr. Beata Tyburska-Pueschel, the project leader for the ion beam facility. Beata began to do some research and then quickly understood why the flower industry had reached out to DIFFER.
To develop new varieties of flowers, breeders introduce mutations into a plant’s DNA to alter its colour and/or texture. Currently, gamma radiation is the industry standard, but an ion beam accelerator is able to create the same types of defects more efficiently. Defect creation is one of the main uses for an ion beam accelerator, the other is material analysis. DIFFER acquired the accelerator so its fusion energy researchers can do material analysis. While the feasibility of large-scale, carbon-free fusion power plants still has to be proven, DIFFER is using the accelerator in combination with plasma generators such as Magnum-PSI and UPP to simulate a fusion power plant to see how the walls of commercial reactors interact with the plasma created during fusion. But in order to get an even better picture of how neutron irradiation will create defects in a commercial plant, Beata and her colleagues need to upgrade the accelerator.
Beata is passionate about fusion, which is what drew her to DIFFER and this project. She estimates there’s still about a year and a half more of work to do to get the accelerator to the point that they can open it up to users from outside of DIFFER. “The biggest problem is that, as it is now, the accelerator is simply not user friendly. If an outside researcher comes to the facility, our goal is that it should be fairly straightforward for them to use the accelerator with minimal assistance from us,” says Beata. She also wants to make sure that the upgrades are made in a smart way that will make the accelerator appealing and accessible to researchers in a variety of fields. “We're in the process of redesigning one of our chambers and I'm trying to make sure it’s extremely versatile,” she says. “I’m imagining the different possible applications which affect the size, weight, and vacuum of the chamber. This way, if someone wants to use our accelerator in the future, we won't have to say no because we just don't have the right sized chamber.”
Prioritizing versatility has meant that Beata has ended up with a long wish list for the new chamber and some of her wishes are difficult to accommodate from an engineering perspective. Fortunately, she has an incredible team of inventive engineers and technicians at DIFFER to come up with solutions to bring her vision to life. “I absolutely adore my technicians. They are my workforce,” she says. She was a little apprehensive at first that, as the only woman on the team, she would be judged for not knowing engineering basics. But this has not been the case. “The engineers and technicians are very nice guys. We have mutual respect for each other and I like working with them.”
Beata is keen to raise awareness of the potential applications of the accelerator both within DIFFER and the Netherlands. In addition to fusion energy, DIFFER’s other main research area is solar fuels. Beata knows that the accelerator can advance solar fuel research, so she’s designed an internal education program to help the institute’s solar fuel researchers understand what kind of experiments are possible with the accelerator. She’s also planning some PR activities to promote the accelerator and DIFFER in the Netherlands once it’s open to outside users. She’s planning a contest to paint the accelerator and get the art departments of Dutch universities involved. “I want news of the accelerator to reach a broader audience than just scientists because that’s how you connect with other industries, like the flower industry. The news reaches someone you would never expect to see potential in the accelerator.”
Header image: Bart van Overbeeke
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Beata is the project leader for the ion beam facility at DIFFER. She earned her PhD from the German Institute for Plasma Physics and did a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) before joining DIFFER in September 2019.