Interview Egbert Westerhof: Always in motion

Published on June 11, 2021

Egbert Westerhof started out at DIFFER in 1983 as a PhD student. He saw the institute evolve from an exclusively fusion-focused ‘family’ inhabiting a medieval castle to a more business-like community committed to fundamental energy research and situated on a modern university campus. As interim head of fusion research, Westerhof is now preparing the next round of evolutions.

Interim head of fusion research Egbert Westerhof

Fusion research at DIFFER is currently in excellent health, says Egbert Westerhof. “We are working towards the first international plasma experiments in the large ITER tokamak in the South of France.These are planned to start in 2025. Hopefully, they will demonstrate that it is technically feasible to keep a plasma stable for a sufficient length of time and to extract energy from it.”

But fusion research never stands still, and members of its community continuously look towards new horizons. After ITER, the next phase in fusion research will be a demonstration power station, at an even larger scale than the experimental ITER tokamak. This offers new scientific challenges, says Westerhof.“The wall of the reactor will have to withstand even bigger forces from the plasma, for instance. A solid metal with a high melting point, like tungsten, may not be strong enough. That is why together with Eindhoven University of Technology we developed plans for a new experimental facility: LiMeS. In this program, we would like to experiment with both tungsten and liquid metals to contain the plasma. The fluidity may prove an effective and elegant solution, since in a fluid state the metal renews itself automatically, which makes it more resilient.”

Bridges to be built
Now that Westerhof leads the fusion research theme at DIFFER, he feels responsible for recruiting researchers from fresh disciplines into the field. “When we start working on the DEMO reactor, we will need not only fusion physicists, but system engineers, industrial design engineers, electrical engineers, nuclear scientists, and innovation scientists as well. DIFFER is the Dutch port of entry for international fusion research, so it is my ambition to build some bridges. Both parties can profit: our field offers opportunities for challenging, interesting,and meaningful research to Dutch groups. On the other hand, the Netherlands harbors a lot of talent that fusion can capitalize on.”

As a veteran at DIFFER, does Westerhof ever get homesick for that other era, when the institute was still located in a more isolated but beautiful spot, the estate of Rijnhuizen Castle? His answer is a resolute “no”. “That was also a good time; we were almost a family then. But it was inevitable for us to move in a more business-like direction. We have now a more international staff, and people from all over Europe come to us. Not only for our unique research facilities, but also because of the excellent reputation of our staff.

The relocation to Eindhoven has also brought us a lot: many more students on the work floor and shared research programs with the university, like the new LiMeS project. We just got the news we receive a NWO Investment Grant Large to build it [in January 21, Ed.], that is great news.”

Text Mariette Huisjes, photo Bart van Overbeeke/DIFFER. This interview is published in the DIFFER Annual Report 2020.

Go to the News page.