Photo: Mikal Schlosser

Portrait of a down-to-earth space physicist

Thursday 21 Dec 17
by Bertel Henning Jensen


Birgitte Madsen is devoting the next many years of her research to harnessing the sun’s energy in an effort to provide safe and efficient nuclear power.

Every once in a while, a person can look back on a single meeting or a single situation and know that their world changed at that precise moment. Birgitte Madsen had such an experience when—as a young upper secondary school student from Herning in Denmark—she found herself staring at the JET fusion reactor outside Oxford, in England.

“One of the researchers who was there when we were given a guided tour said that everything outside of and around the reactor was engineering—while everything inside was physics. I immediately got a gut feeling that I would study physics,” she remembers in her office at DTU Physics, where she is a PhD student in plasma physics and fusion energy.

From an early age, Birgitte knew her choice lay somewhere between physicist and engineer, as natural science was never far from her mind. Her mother is education manager at an upper secondary school in Herning, Denmark—while her father is a computer scientist with Danish pump manufacturer, Grundfos. Then there are aunts and grandparents who are engineers—and even though she is able to recall an aunt who studied the Humanities—she is quick to add:

“She’s married to a researcher in molecular biology.”

"With fusion energy, it’s much easier for me to see the bigger picture. Don’t get me wrong—space physics is enormously exciting and fascinating—but in fusion energy we have a very clear goal of getting a fusion reactor to generate green energy for humans. "
Birgitte Madsen, DTU Physics

To put it mildly, the dice were cast her from the very beginning. Of course, that does not mean that a person cannot choose their own path—and indeed, Birgitte showed she was more than capable of doing just that.

The fact that Birgitte found herself in Oxford, staring at the jet reactor was no coincidence. Even then, she had exhibited a special talent, which was why she and 24 other upper secondary school students from around Denmark were chosen to join the ‘Fusion Class’ which—via DTU—was given special challenges and experiences in the field of natural science—including a trip to England.

“The Fusion Class introduced us to some physics, which we weren’t privy to in our normal teaching—and we were assigned more complicated tasks than we would otherwise have been given. It was also a pat on the back and a recognition of the fact that you had abilities, but at that time I felt that working with fusion energy was pie in the sky and not something I could manage. It was almost a little too… cool,” says Birgitte Madsen, bursting into laughter as the word passes her lips.

Settled for physics

So instead of cool fusion energy, after upper secondary school Birgitte Madsen ‘settled’ for studying physics at Aalborg University and subsequently space physics at the University of Oslo—a subject she still talks about with infectious enthusiasm. “What happens in space is tremendously exciting. The very fact that we can fly up there and take measurements, etc. For my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to work with data from the ESA spaceship ‘Rosetta’, which orbited around a comet—it was fantastic,” she says with a smile.

“Everything that takes place between the planets in space is plasma, and we can therefore learn a great deal about how plasma reacts to different things, which is fascinating. That was also the reason I took my MSc in Oslo, as it allowed me to work with plasma physics,” she explains.

That said, there was always something pulling her in the opposite direction. So when a PhD position in fusion energy became vacant at DTU, she did not hesitate in applying. Fusion energy—both metaphorically and literally—is considerably more down to earth—which was the decisive factor for her:

“With fusion energy, it’s much easier for me to see the bigger picture. Don’t get me wrong—space physics is enormously exciting and fascinating—but in fusion energy we have a very clear goal of getting a fusion reactor to generate green energy for humans. So there’s a specific aim, which is great to work with,” she explains.

“Our ability to describe nature and anticipate and sometimes control things things that would otherwise be controlled by the elements is extremely exciting.

Tiny sun on Earth

Fusion energy is like having a tiny sun on Earth, and I find the idea of helping to establish the most fundamental form of energy here on the planet so we can utilize it as a future source of green energy fascinating,” she adds with the same infectious enthusiasm as before.

Fusion energy research has the potential to change the way we think about energy globally and is therefore an important field of research—and one which may have very specific implications for all of us within a relatively short space of time.

Birgitte Madsen is quick to explain that a ‘relatively short space of time’ still translates into half a human life:

“If all goes well, my own assessment is that we may have fusion energy in the power grid in 50 to 60 years.”

Subsidiary goals okay

What is it like working with something whose implications are so far off into the future that you may never see the results yourself?

“That’s fine with me. There are plenty of milestones along the way, so it’s okay—plus it means there’s work for me for the next many years,” she says with a grin.

“Ideologically speaking, what I’m doing fits perfectly with my personal views. It probably harks all the way back to primary and lower secondary school where they taught us that green energy is really important,” she says and continues:

“The most important thing for me is definitely my interest in the subject, but it’s also important for me to make a difference.”

My work will, of course, contribute towards the final goal, but many other researchers are equally committed to streamlining fusion.”

You are very humble

“What can I say—I’m from Jutland.”
4 AUGUST 2020