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Nat Fisch Wins Europe's Alfvén Prize

The European Physical Society (EPS) has named physicist Nat Fisch winner of the 2015 Hannes Alfvén Prize. Fisch, director of the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics and professor and associate chair of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, will receive the honor in June at the at the annual meeting of the EPS Division of Plasma Physics in Lisbon, Portugal. The prize, named for 1970 Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén, a pioneering Swedish plasma physicist, goes each year to a person who has contributed greatly to the advancement of plasma physics or shows promise of doing so in the future.

"I am very grateful that the European Physical Society reached across the ocean to recognize my contributions to plasma physics research," said Fisch. "My efforts would not have been successful without the support and vibrant intellectual environment provided by my colleagues at PPPL over many years."

Among other honors, Fisch has received the American Physical Society Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics in 1992, the U. S. Department of Energy Bronze Medal for Outstanding Mentor in 2002, the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 2004, and the James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics in 2005.

"Being selected for this award is major recognition for Nat," PPPL Director Stewart Prager said of the Alfvén Prize. "It recognizes seminal work he did in developing fundamental plasma physics theories. All in all, Nat's research has been smashingly successful and practical, and has contributed immensely to the fusion enterprise. And despite the length of his career and the importance of his endeavors, his creativity continues unabated."

"The prize recognizes that Nat Fisch is one of the intellectual leaders of plasma physics," said David Spergel, chair of the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences. "He has contributed not only through his innovative ideas and research but also by serving as a mentor for several generations of graduate students."

Fundamental calculations

Fisch received the Alfvén Prize for fundamental studies of wave-particle interactions and for predicting new plasma phenomena, including new ways of creating electrical currents using radio-frequency waves. One notable prediction exploited how certain plasma waves could increase the energy of electrons going in only one direction along a magnetic field.  The asymmetry in absorption meant that electrons traveling in one direction would collide with ions less often than would electrons traveling in the opposite direction. The collision asymmetry then leads to a powerful effect: Huge electrical currents might then be created with relatively little power consumption.

Experiments to test this effect showed that Fisch's predictions were correct, demonstrating that tokamaks could operate in a continuous, or steady state. Steady-state operation is thought to be necessary for economical production of fusion energy in magnetic confinement devices.

Fisch has been studying waves in plasmas for years and in many different contexts. "The problem of using waves to transform energy in plasma from one form to another is one I returned to again and again during my career," he said. In addition to pursuing how wave effects might make fusion energy practical, he is currently researching how to use plasma to reach the next generation of laser beam intensities.

Fisch joined PPPL as a researcher in 1978, the same year that he earned his Ph.D. from MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. While a member of the PPPL Theory Department he served as consultant at the Exxon Research and Engineering Company from 1981 to 1986 and as a visiting scientist at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in 1986. He became director of the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics and a professor in the University's Department of Astrophysical Sciences in 1991, and in 1993 was named PPPL's Associate Director for Academic Affairs.

In addition to directing the Program in Plasma Physics, Fisch teaches the program's first-year graduate course and has supervised 13 doctoral theses. He holds 10 patents, mostly based on direct applications of plasma physics. His work is remarkably varied; together with graduate student Vasily Geyko, he is currently applying for a patent related to enhancing the efficiency of internal combustion engines, based on his and Geyko’s predictions concerning the heat capacity of spinning gases. "Plasma physics is inherently a multi-disciplinary field," Fisch says. "It touches on a lot of topics."

When asked about the most gratifying part of his career, Fisch had a global perspective. "For someone like me who mainly makes up things in his mind, perhaps the greatest satisfaction comes when experimentalists make the effort to test the theory," Fisch said.  "It is a source of immense satisfaction to me to see experiments all around the world now using these current-drive methods, not only to generate electric currents for the reasons I had thought most useful, but also for new uses for these currents that I had never thought of myself."

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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