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Physicist Stefan Gerhardt receives 2016 Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award

Stefan Gerhardt, principal research physicist and head of experimental operations on the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has won the Fusion Power Associates 2016 Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award.

The honor, given by directors of the research and educational foundation, recognizes "persons in the relatively early part of their careers who have shown both technical accomplishment and potential to become exceptionally influential leaders in the fusion field." The award was presented on December 13 at Fusion Power Associates' 37th annual meeting and symposium in Washington, D.C. Fusion Power has presented the award each year since 1987 in memory of David J. Rose, a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT.

In its notification letter, the group's board of directors cited Gerhardt's "many scientific contributions," including his "recent work on predicting plasma disruptions, which will provide major benefit to ITER and other major fusion experiments, and the leadership you provided and are providing." ITER is an international tokamak under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power.

Jon Menard, program director of the NSTX-U, applauded Gerhardt's receipt of the Fusion Power award. "In the span of only a few years, Stefan’s tenacity, legendary work ethic, attention to detail, and technical prowess have all been focused on whatever problem needs to be solved," Menard said.

Gerhardt first became interested in plasma physics and fusion as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While looking for a campus job, he discovered that the plasma physics group had openings. "I worked on the capacitor banks and did various maintenance tasks on the Madison Symmetric Torus, a plasma research machine," he recalled. "By the time I received an undergraduate degree, I had worked for three years in a fusion laboratory. I just kept on going from there."

In 2004, Gerhardt joined PPPL as a post-doctoral researcher and began working on the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX), a device that lets physicists study the breaking apart and snapping together of magnetic field lines in plasma. He soon was promoted to staff physicist, and after a vacancy opened up he became the head of magnetic diagnostics for PPPL's National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX).

For Gerhardt, the quest to create a viable fusion power source is both a devilishly difficult engineering problem and a pressing social obligation. "There's no doubt that the energy demands of the world are ever-growing, and the environmental impact of those energy demands could be debilitating," Gerhardt said. "And so, how do you get out of that? Tell everyone to live as if they were in the 17th century? Probably not realistic. In addition to being technically interesting, fusion is a very relevant topic. I personally like that."

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

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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