IMDEA Materials Institute Alumni in Focus – Sergio Sadaba

IMDEA Materials Institute alumni and Senior Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) Project Engineer, Dr. Sergio Sadaba, believes researchers could finally be reaching a tipping point in the development of nuclear fusion reactor technology.  

Dr. Sadaba, who was at IMDEA Materials for more than seven years from 2007 to 2014, has since spent the better part of the past decade at IDOM Nuclear Services, headquartered in Bilbao.

As a consultant with the Basque-based company, the Public University of Navarra (UPNA) graduate is involved in the design of some of the core components of the next generation of fusion reactors.

This has included work on projects related to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion experiment involving 35 countries from around the globe.

The idea of being able to harness the same nuclear reaction process that powers the stars to produce clean, effectively limitless energy here on earth has long been something of a pipedream in the scientifc community. A case of breakthroughs always just over the horizon, yet never quite realized.

But Dr. Sadaba says that could be about the change in the coming years. And he highlighted the recent developments in space travel and technology precipitated by SpaceX as an example of how quickly innovation can turn into reality once industry gets on board.

“We can take a clear example from the space industry, where you have two organisations in the United States, one of which is NASA and one is SpaceX,” he explains. “NASA moves in the right direction, but it does so very slowly.”

“SpaceX, on the other hand, has been around for less than a decade, yet has made very quick progress, a lot of which has been based on the expertise previously built up by NASA over many years.”

“We can see a similar evolution in nuclear fusion reactor technology. For the past 60 years, progress has been very slow and steady as it has been focused on government and public research departments. However, we are now reaching the point where the theoretical science from several years ago is becoming a reality and it is finally starting to attract capital risk from industry.

“Once private companies are willing to invest, and we’re seeing that with the number of start ups that are now getting off the ground, then that’s when things start to get interesting because the process really starts to speed up.”

Dr. Sadaba’s research in the field revolves largely around simulation, in particular in the practical engineering use of the finite element method (FEM). It involves the development of components that can withstand the extreme conditions within a fusion reactor such as extremely high heat fluxes, strong electromagnetic fields, and neutron irradiation.

This simulation-focused line of research follows on from the then-predoctoral researcher’s work at IMDEA Materials. While at the Insitute, he completed his PhD (Cum laude) in unidirectional fiber-reinforced polymetric composites under the supervision of Principal Investigador Prof. Carlos González as part of the Structural Composites research group. 

Dr. Sadaba was, in fact, the very first predoctoral researcher hired by IMDEA Materiales after its foundation in 2007. And as such, he had a better view than just about anyone to the Institute’s growth during its early years.

“For a time, it was just me and (fellow researcher) Marcos Rodríguez at the office and that was quite fun,” he recalls. “We were quite good friends, and the job was very interesting.”

“I was assigned to the computational mechanics group of Prof. Carlos González and there were a some numerical theories that were appearing in that field at the time. Most of them didn´t work out to predict experimental results, but it was quite exciting to combine this type of research with experimental work.

“Usually when you’re working with a company or in other research institutes, you just focus on preparing the model, but you aren’t involved in the experimental component to actually see it suceed or fail.”

And he said completing his PhD at IMDEA Materials had served to hone both his soft and hard skills in a number of areas. This included on the one hand the ability to solve complex, open problems and being able to structure ideas, and on the other, learning to use state-of-the art tools and software.

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