Undergraduate Research

Niels Vanderloo ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Niels Vanderloo ’23

Niels Vanderloo
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Niels Vanderloo (he/him) is majoring in physics and mathematics. He conducts research under the mentorships of Associate Professor of Physics Rob Owen and Petros Tzeferacos from the University of Rochester. His project is titled “Gas Puff Z Pinch Simulations using the FLASH Code for a general audience a better title might be: Simulating Plasma Physics to use Nuclear Fusion for Renewable Energy.”

Please describe your project:

Nuclear fusion occurs naturally on the Sun and in stars. Producing nuclear fusion on Earth is a promising source of renewable energy that doesn’t have the waste products of nuclear fission or require the land area needed for wind or solar power. We study one candidate for a nuclear fusion reactor, the gas-puff Z-pinch. The gas-puff Z-pinch is an experiment where an electric current through a cylinder of ionized gas generates a magnetic field, causing the gas to “pinch” inwards. This compression heats the gas, now plasma, to temperatures hotter than the Sun’s core causing fusion to occur. The publicly available plasma physics simulation code, FLASH, has new features enabling simulations of Z-pinches that have yet to be tested rigorously against experiments. We use FLASH to simulate a gas-puff Z-pinch and have found good agreement with experimental data from the CESZAR experiment at the UC San Diego.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

I run simulations of an experiment called a gas-puff Z-pinch that uses magnetic fields to heat a jet of ionized gas, or plasma to nuclear fusion conditions. Simulating these experiments is important to researching nuclear fusion energy, a promising source of renewable energy.

Why is your research important?

Producing nuclear fusion on Earth is a promising source of renewable energy that doesn’t have the waste products of nuclear fission or require the land area needed for wind or solar power. Simulations will be a critical part of designing fusion reactors for energy production. Rigorously testing new capabilities of the FLASH simulation code is important for the >4000 users of FLASH to rely on their results to predict experimental behavior. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

For my research I have two meetings per week. The first is with both of my advisors where I present my progress and compile questions to ask them. The second is with the group at the University of Rochester that I collaborate with. In between meetings and classes I work on coding up simulations with FLASH in Fortran, reading papers to understand my results and writing up my findings.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

I have contributed code to the widely used FLASH code that has been included in the latest release. For my honors thesis I have validated that the FLASH code can properly simulate a Z pinch using comparison to experiments and other simulation packages.

Niels working on two computer monitorsIn what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

At the end of the summer program for my REU I presented my research at the end of my summer REU program where I began the research. I will give a physics department talk on my honors thesis and I hope to present a poster at a conference this summer.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college?

I got involved by talking to my physics professor about if he had any ideas for a winter term project during my first semester. We came up with something that was more of a learning experience which prepared me for more impactful research in my 2nd,3rd and 4th years. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process? 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher? (2-3 sentences each) 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development? 

I have realized how much I enjoy doing research and next year I plan to start a PhD program in Physics. Research helps me contextualize the learning I do in my classes and has motivated me in those classes. I can see myself working in research after Oberlin and after graduate school.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

I would say don’t be afraid if you don’t think you know anything. If you have the will to learn you will pick up skills along the way. Professors at Oberlin are really excited to help you learn about their research as you get on board.