Stemming career

At Phoenix, young engineer excels in cutting-edge nuclear technology.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Pittsville is a small, rural Wisconsin town famous, perhaps, for being the geographical center of the state. It is also the childhood home of Mindy Bakken, 25, test and service engineer at Phoenix in Madison, a company that is quickly becoming a beacon in the world of nuclear technology.

Phoenix makes neutron and proton generators used in the health, defense, and energy fields. The 13-year-old company has just over 50 employees and is looking to add up to 30 more this year, prompting discussions of a new building in 2019.

Bakken, currently the company’s only female engineer, was hired right after completing her master’s degree last spring and she’s a shining example of a young woman committing herself to a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career.

She was studying chemistry at UW–Madison and looking for some lab experience when she landed a job in the engineering-physics department working with beams. Now she has a degree in nuclear engineering and engineering physics, and her master’s thesis focused on a diagnostic neutral beam. “I just have a lot of interest in beams in general,” she states.

As a test and service engineer at Phoenix, Bakken builds, fixes, and operates neutron generators. “Currently I’m also in charge of the manufacturing of the build,” Bakken states. “That means keeping them going and figuring out what we’ll be doing from day to day to get [each system] ready to ship.”

Four such “builds” are occurring simultaneously on our visit. “This is the first time the company has done more than one system at a time,” she says, a testament to Phoenix’s growth.

Generating interest

Inside a large lab, four circular metal plates about 4-feet in diameter are lined up side by side. These units are called “top sheets,” and each is part of a system that will take between six months and a year to assemble, complete, and test.

Two of the four systems will become room-sized neutron generators that will accelerate ions from deuterium plasma to form an ion beam, she explains. One system will go to the U.S. Army, and one to the German Ministry of Defense.

After adding an o-ring to a small microwave window (top), Bakken will attach the piece to the top sheet.

A third will remain on premise for in-house ion source testing, and the fourth system will become a hydrogen ion implantation device for Rayton Solar, a California manufacturer of solar panels.

The Army is interested in Phoenix’s neutron generators because the technology allows it to check for defects in artillery, such as faulty (powderless) ammunition.

“It’s similar to X-rays,” Bakken explains, “except that it sees what X-rays can’t. You see more of the softer rather than harder metals.”

All of these systems are Phoenix inventions designed to replace what nuclear reactors once did.

And why is that important?

“A lot of companies will take their imaging needs to a reactor,” Bakken explains. “The Phoenix technology is much more affordable than building your own reactor. All you need is the neutron production, and that’s what these systems do. They produce neutrons.”

Until now, the normal source for neutrons has been through nuclear reactors. After the disasters of Three Mile Island and Fukushima, Japan, there is a growing interest in alternate technologies. Phoenix has developed a new means of producing neutrons that basically comes with an on-and-off switch.

Bakken is energized by the company’s cutting-edge technology. “I love the physics behind plasma-driven, larger beams,” she smiles. “It’s just fascinating to me!”

Beyond the science, she especially enjoys doing something different every day, from research and development to assembling or repairing a system, operating a system, or working with controls to steer a beam.

We found her assembling an ion source magnet that will be attached to a top sheet. The magnet will create a magnetic field. “Our source plasma chamber is inside that magnetic field which helps create the plasma,” she explains.

A few moments later, with the help of colleague Jonathan Seyfert, they hoist a heavy motor mount into position, attaching it to the ground side (versus the high-voltage side) of the top sheet. The motor will power the mechanism. “We have to have some way to get power to the top sheet,” Bakken explains, “and obviously we can’t just plug it in.”

On another day she may be assembling manifolds used in water-cooling cabinets and testing each manifold for leaks. Each piece is tested individually and then retested as a part of the entire system. She’ll also pull parts for different assemblies and has written assembly instructions for others to use.

As the lead on the Army project, Bakken will be involved in every facet of the build from initial testing, to completion, to operating it into the future. “By having the experience of building the systems, I’m also one of the people who will be sent out to the sites for repair so they will be part of my career forever as long as they’re out in the field.”



Planting STEM seeds

We asked Bakken what advice she might offer students contemplating a STEM career. “Step out of your comfort zone,” she encourages. “I knew absolutely nothing about beams or plasmas when I was in high school. Kids need to try anything and everything. At my school, physics was only offered every other year and only if there was enough demand.

Top, Bakken assembles an ion source magnet. Above, hoisting and aligning a motor mount to the back of a top sheet is a two-person job.

“You really have to look at the world in a different way,” Bakken continues. “I went into chemistry because I was good at chemistry and knew I’d do well in school. Then I found something completely different that I really liked but it was a struggle and I had to work super hard. I’m thankful I did because now I’m doing something really cool.”

Although Bakken’s job focuses on large neutron generators, Phoenix is also developing a smaller version of their neutron source that can be attached to military vehicles to detect and warn against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the field.

“We’ve proven that our technology can detect IEDs in sand, wet sand, and different terrains in a laboratory environment. Now we are working toward building a mobile version to perform the same work in the field,” she explains.

“Nobody else has done something like this, using neutrons to do imaging or ion implantation or etching of semi conductors. It’s also getting us one step closer to using nuclear for energy, a cleaner energy source. We’re a long way off but the developments are very cool.”

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