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ORNL Faculty Research Profile: Joseph Tipton

Young faculty member gains practical experience in fusion energy research to take back to classroom


Joseph Tipton

Joseph Tipton, a professor at the University of Evansville who holds a Doctorate in mechanical engineering, has dedicated his last four summers to gaining real-world research experience at one of the most advanced research labs in the country, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. His project focused on modeling technology to make nuclear fusion a viable energy alternative.

In the scientific struggle to develop new, more efficient ways to power the world, the sun might be the best role model. When gravity pulls the mass of the sun to its core, highly-pressurized hydrogen atoms bind in an intense-heat-creating process known as fusion. For the past four summers, mechanical engineer Joseph Tipton has contributed to a project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that could make nuclear fusion a viable energy option back down on Earth in the near future.

“Fusion energy has the potential to provide for our country’s ever increasing electricity demand without many of the harmful side effects like global warming, long-term radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation concerns, etc.,” said Tipton, who holds a Doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee and is an assistant professor at the University of Evansville. “ORNL is at the forefront of a world-wide effort to one day generate electricity from fusion, and I’m excited to be contributing my small part to such a worthwhile goal.”

Tipton was given this opportunity through the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at ORNL, administered by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education contract with the U.S. Department of Energy. The program is funded by the ORNL Nuclear Engineering and Science Directorate, Fusion Energy Division, and US-ITER, an international collaboration of scientists and engineers working to demonstrate burning plasma as feasible for the commercial power grid.

“I was completely unfamiliar with the ITER fusion experiment before my participation in this program. The scope of this project is truly amazing when you consider the confluence of culture, politics, economics, science and engineering,” Tipton said.

At ORNL, he specifically participated in the design and computer simulation of the cooling systems used in fusion energy experiments.

“Fusion experiments can generate an enormous amount of heat energy that is contained in a plasma field. The surfaces that face the plasma must be actively cooled. Otherwise, they would be destroyed by the heat. Often, the cooling is performed by flowing fluid through passages in the devices. It’s the same principle as your car radiator—on steroids!” he explained. “Computer simulation is an important tool to capture the physics of the cooling system without having to pay for the construction and testing of a physical model.”

In addition to on-screen modeling, Tipton spent his time reading fusion engineering journal articles and attending group meetings with ORNL and US-ITER staff, plus holding phone conferences with scientists and engineers involved in the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) project in Germany. The W7-X project is a fusion experiment built by the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics.

Now that the summer program is complete, Tipton is leveraging the international perspective and laboratory experience gained through the program to become a better educator.

“The HERE at ORNL program has given me invaluable engineering experience in a professional setting. I’m able to bring my experiences back to the classroom. As a result, my students see and experience new ways in which their education can apply to real-world problems,” he said.

In a decade, he hopes to be an expert in engineering as well as computational fluid dynamics, and his experience at ORNL has given him access to some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.

“The Department of Energy is pursuing peaceful and meaningful research that helps both mankind and the environment,” he said. “It has been a huge blessing in my life both personally and professionally to research fusion energy at ORNL.”