Four laboratory researchers receive high honors for their contributions to the development of fusion to counter climate change

Dec. 16, 2022

Four winners have been named for groundbreaking achievements at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The honors, which include plaques and $7,500 for each winner, recognize three physicists and an engineer for developments that advance the capability to capture on Earth the safe and clean fusion energy that powers the sun and stars.

This year’s honorees are research physicists Alessandro Bortolon, Robert Lunsford, and engineer Alexander Nagy, recipients of PPPL’s Kaul Foundation Prize for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research and Technology Development. Winner of the Laboratory’s Distinguished Research Fellow Award is theorist Igor Kaganovich, a principal research physicist.

The Kaul recipients were recognized for their leadership in developing innovative impurity injection devices that are used to improve plasma performance in fusion energy experiments around the world. Distinguished research winner Kaganovich was honored for his leadership of innovative research on low-temperature plasma and for initiating industrial partnerships.

The late Ronald Davidson, a former director of PPPL, endowed the Kaul honor from his Award for Excellence in Science, Education and Physics provided by the Kaul Foundation in Tampa, Florida in 1993. The DOE-supported Distinguished Research Fellow honor is part of the Distinguished Research and Engineering Fellow Program at PPPL.

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, congratulated the three Kaul Award winners during his Dec. 16 State of the Laboratory address. “These impurity injection devices have been improved on over several years and are in use at fusion experiments around the world,” Cowley said shortly afterwords. “They have gotten some excellent results. And they are the result of a collaboration by a talented team of engineers and physicists that highlights our strength both as a physics and an engineering laboratory. Thank you to Robert, Alessandro and Alex for your hard work and dedication on these devices.”

Cowley said Kaganovich’s abilities in theoretical physics and coding have been vital to PPPL’s expanded mission into applications for low-temperature plasmas and nanomaterials. “I would like to thank Igor for his invaluable contributions to this Laboratory,” Cowley said. “He has an amazing ability to pivot to whatever we need from him and he brings with him numerous talents not only in theoretical physics but also in coding. I’m looking forward to seeing the fruit of Igor’s efforts in the years to come.” 

Kaul Foundation Prize for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research and Technology Development

Awarded for improving wall conditions, edge stability, and power exhaust in fusion experiments via innovative impurity injection devices.

“These three are very deserving of this honor, having spent enormous personal energy and time to make these groundbreaking tools useful and used at fusion facilities all over the world,” said Rajesh Maingi, head of the Tokamak Experimental Sciences Department that encompasses their work.

Alessandro Bortolon

Alessandro Bortolon, who heads the PPPL collaboration with the General Atomics DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego, helped create a tool to inject elements like boron into fusion facility plasma. Those elements, known as “impurities,” regenerate the lining of facility walls and make operation of the doughnut-shaped tokamak more efficient. Varieties of the device have been installed on fusion facilities around the world, including in Germany, South Korea, China, and France.

Bortolon came to PPPL in 2010 for a postdoctoral research position after earning his doctorate from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne. After another postdoctoral position developing a diagnostic measuring device for PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), PPPL hired him in 2014 to be part of the collaborative effort that sends PPPL scientists to General Atomics in San Diego to perform research using the DIII-D tokamak, a national fusion facility.

“I am very proud of the work we have done,” Bortolon said, who gives credit to the other members of the collaboration, as well as the summer students and interns who helped develop the injection tools. “This started almost as a side project and now it has become an international research program.”

He stressed the pioneering importance of fusion research. “I think that sometimes what we are trying to do can be compared to endeavors like the Apollo mission, even if we sometimes forget that during our everyday lives,” he said. “And with recent efforts to develop fusion reactors combined with advances in theory and computation, this is indeed a special time for fusion research.”

Robert Lunsford

Experimental plasma physicist Robert Lunsford joined the Lab in 2014. A member of the Tokamak Experimental Science department, he studies the plasma edge, the region within a fusion facility where the superheated plasma approaches the facility’s inner wall. Among other reasons, scientists study this region to learn how to reduce the turbulent churning of the plasma that cools the superhigh heat needed for fusion reactions. 

Lunsford conducted research in the plasma physics division at the United States Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C. before joining PPPL. He earned his doctorate in 2007 at the University of Maryland working on the Maryland Centrifugal Experiment (MCX), an innovative machine that relied on spinning motion to help confine the plasma. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Georgia Institute of Technology.  

Lunsford said he enjoys plasma physics because of the interplay between theory and experiment. “In plasma physics, you can’t just wing it,” he said. “You need a good idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. Even then, experiments can surprise you.”

He expressed thanks to the scientists whose work laid a foundation for his. “I am extremely grateful for all the work that was done prior to my joining the powder dropper projects,” he said. “These projects have allowed me to go to amazing places and stand on top of some of the most advanced machines in the world!”

Alexander Nagy

Alex Nagy has devoted 45 years of his life to perfecting fusion experiments and tools to make the experiments run better. He now heads the PPPL Engineering Collaboration Team at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics, where he has worked on impurity injection devices since 2015.

“I’m honored to have made a big impact,” he said. “One of my goals is to make fusion work better. Everyone’s goal is to do that.”

Nagy began his career at PPPL in 1977. He built the radio frequency test facility for the then-running Princeton Large Torus (PLT) and went on to become a chief operator on the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), which set a world record for producing fusion energy in 1994. He moved to DIII-D in 1997 when TFTR stopped operating and remained a PPPL employee. After managing DIII-D’s low frequency radio frequency system for several years he became head engineer for special projects.

Nagy has installed the powder dropper first developed by PPPL in facilities around the world. Installation of another device, the pulsed powder injector at the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) stellarator in Germany, was dubbed the “Killer Klinger powder flinger” after two W7-X physicists who has worked on the device. Nagy and his team also invented a granule injector that can drop a single granule into the plasma.

Nagy has two bachelor’s degrees, one in electrical engineering from the College of New Jersey and one in psychology from New Jersey Stockton State College. He was named a PPPL Distinguished Engineering Fellow in 2019 and has served as a mentor for several college students participating in the DOE’s Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program at DIII-D.

An avid surfer, Nagy rides a motorcycle to work every day and has been a Boy Scout troop scoutmaster. He now serves on San Diego Superior Court Judge Gill’s Eagle Scout Board of Review.

Distinguished Research Fellow

For advancing kinetic theory and simulations in low-temperature plasmas, plasma synthesis of nanomaterials, and leadership in industrial collaborations.

Igor Kaganovich

Igor Kaganovich, a native of the former Soviet Union who holds a doctorate from the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute in Russia, joined PPPL in 2000 and works closely with Princeton University. He and team member Yury Barsukov of the Peter the Great St. Petersburgh Polytechnic University are performing quantum calculations of the growth of a synthetic diamond sensor that the University and PPPL are developing. He co-leads with PPPL colleague Yevgeny Raitses the Princeton Collaborative Low Temperature Plasma Research Facility, which provides world-wide access to state-of-the-art research capabilities at the Lab and the University.

His collaborations range from partnership with Exxon to capture carbon from natural gas to initiating an agreement with Advanced Materials, the world’s largest supplier of equipment for fabricating computer chips, to assist in the development of new atomic-scale chip fabrication. Also underway is work with Samsung, the largest manufacturer of computer chips.

His work has been essential to broadening the mission of PPPL. “Igor started a major CRADA [Cooperative Research & Development Agreement] with Applied Materials, played a key role in receiving the diamond co-doping proposal that involves the Lab with the University’s QIS [Quantum Information Science] program, and played a key role in getting the Exxon project started,” said David Graves, associate laboratory director for low-temperature plasma surface interactions.”

The team has also assisted General Electric in designing plasma switches for a more reliable electric grid.

The latest award is one of his many honors. He is an American Physical Society and Alexander von Humboldt fellow, a senior associate editor of the journal Physics of Plasmas, served as deputy head of the Theory Department from 2015 to 2022, and won a Kaul Prize with Raitses for his research on low-temperature plasma in 2019.

Kagonovich deeply appreciates the Laboratory’s recognition. “I am very grateful for it,” he said. “It means a lot to me and members of my group.”

When not leading research projects he is a passionate fan of opera and enjoys weekly televised performances with friends. While in Italy last month he took in performances at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan. “They were wonderful,” he said, “and well-worth remembering.”

Members of the Kaganovich team who contributed to the collaborative projects included Tasman Powis, Willca Villafana, Stephane Ethier, Sierra Jubin Alexander Khanelles, Omesh Dwivedi and contractors Alexander Khrabrov and Dmytro Sydorenko.