Growing up, Senior Mechanical Engineer Ana Sopalovic didn’t imagine she would one day help design and build the walls of fusion energy reactors for TAE Technologies. But her automotive engineering skills are highly valued at the Southern California-based private company that is leading the charge to commercialize fusion.
Like many budding engineers, Ana Sopalovic fell in love with cars and motorcycles when she was very young, and dreamed of becoming a Formula One driver. However, F1 drivers typically start training even younger than she was at the time, and that hadn’t been an option while she was growing up in Basque country in Northern Spain. But her passion and aptitude drove her to mechanical engineering.
“So, the next best thing for me was: Well, if I can’t drive them, I’m going to build them,” Sopalovic said.
In engineering school she became active in Formula SAE, a student engineering competition, and built an electric race car. After studying engineering, she had a job lined up in the industry before graduating college. From there, her automotive engineering career took her to Detroit and later, Rivian, an electric vehicle start-up.
After working at the top of the automotive field for several years, Sopalovic has found fresh success refocusing her engineering career from electric powertrain development to the most advanced approach to commercial fusion energy.
The field of fusion energy is on a mission to produce energy the way the Sun does, by harnessing the power of a fusion reaction. TAE is the world’s largest and leading private fusion energy company, founded in 1998 to develop aneutronic hydrogen-boron fusion energy, which promises to be the cleanest, safest, most affordable form of carbon-free commercial power. The company is now constructing its sixth fusion research reactor, and targeting its first power plant around 2030. To get there, TAE is recruiting the most advanced science and engineering team on the planet to build a complete, clean energy ecosystem. More and more, the growing field of commercial fusion development is recruiting engineers from the ranks of top automotive companies and other engineering fields, and Ana is finding the transition fruitful for her career.
Engineers are at the heart of making fusion a reality at TAE. It takes a nimble mind and a sharp curiosity to retarget existing advanced skills to solve problems that have never been solved before. Ana fits the bill, and while her ability to translate her skills to this demanding field hasn’t been easy, it has been rewarding.
“It was very, very tough, but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about people and complex situations,” Ana said of her time at Rivian. “It was an incredibly, incredibly enriching experience.”
Adapting to a new industry was exciting, and it came with its own challenges.
Ana says one thing that appealed to her about joining the quickly growing fusion field is that she had not been met with some of the stale attitudes elsewhere in engineering.
In European schools Ana recalls there was always a notable cohort of women in engineering classrooms but U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate women hold just over a quarter of jobs in the automotive manufacturing workforce, and many report a persistent lack of gender equality and diversity in the industry.
Like many women working in the male-dominated American automotive industry, she had experiences with overt sexism—which she often had to ignore. While working at Rivian, she recalls being told by someone outside her company to “make sure there are engineers in the room” ahead of a supplier meeting that she, an engineer, had single-handedly planned. To Ana, that meant putting on a stylish dress, introducing herself as the design release engineer, and describing the responsibility of her role in the project.
Despite the challenges, her career was taking off, but she quickly saw that a shift in fields could help her find a role at a company where she feels valued for her skills, without being narrowly defined by her gender or cultural background.
“I think part of it may be because specifically fusion is so new, that there is no legacy. There are people who have been doing research for a long time. But that evolves, as research breakthroughs come along. There’s new techniques, new things, new people interested… So there is no such thing as a legacy that you have to navigate, or manage egos,” Ana said.
For anyone considering a transition to engineering in the fusion energy world, it helps to have a limber attitude about the challenge at hand.
“You have to have an open mind when it comes to technical things, to be able to go into something so complex and research it and figure it out and do it knowing that it’s going to be problem after problem,” Ana said.
Solving those problems, one by one, is the gift engineers bring to the fusion field. Ana is designing and developing TAE’s next fusion research machine, Copernicus, alongside a team of colleagues.
For Ana, one professional pay-off lies in her improved interpersonal relationships with colleagues who welcome her input and are “more open to other ideas and more open to listening, versus established companies, where everything is way more rigid.”