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Physicist Egemen Kolemen awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Early Career Research Program

Physicist Egemen Kolemen, who has dual appointments at both Princeton University and the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has been awarded funding from the DOE's Early Career Research Program. The grant, covering five years and totaling almost $850,000, will support research on how to monitor and control instabilities within fusion machines known as tokamaks.

"It's great to see that the work I'm doing is appreciated by the community and the DOE," said Kolemen. "I'm also thankful that the award will allow me to formulate long-term plans and think deeply, without having to worry about grant deadlines." He aims to create a real-time feedback system that will automatically prevent the ultrahot plasma from bursting its magnetic confines and damaging the tokamak's interior.

Kolemen, one of 49 researchers nationwide to receive the award, will conduct the research using the DIII-D National Fusion Facility operated by General Atomics in San Diego, California, where he has spent part of his career. His research will harness the capability of several diagnostic devices currently installed on the machine.

When Kolemen's system is in place the diagnostic data will flow to a high-powered computer cluster with 77 central processing units. This cluster will link to the DIII-D Plasma Control System, which heats and shapes the plasma and will quickly quell instabilities before they become strong enough to cause damage.

Constructing such a system is vital to the quest for fusion energy. Instabilities that disrupt plasma in ITER, the multinational tokamak being built in the south of France, could harm the tokamak's diagnostics and inner walls. A real-time system that could recognize the conditions that precede instabilities and prevent them from developing would help ITER stay online and operate at peak performance.

According to Kolemen, the system he envisions would have three parts, each corresponding to a human's capabilites. The first would consist of the combined efforts of the diagnostics, corresponding to the eyes. The second would consist of the computer's analysis, corresponding to the brain. The third, corresponding to the hands, would consist of the components that modify and control the plasma.

Kolemen's system would also help scientists better understand basic plasma physics by compiling and analyzing a large database of plasma discharges. "One you start looking at thousands of shots," says Kolemen, "you can start discerning patterns, figuring out which phenomena are associated with disruptions."

Kolemen started his career as a Princeton graduate engineering student working on satellites, orbits, and celestial mechanics. He later joined the PPPL staff to research plasma control for the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), forerunner to the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U). He then moved to DIII-D and in 2014 returned to Princeton to became Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. 

His award marks the fourth Early Career Research Program grant for PPPL physicists in as many years. Previous winners include research physicists Luis Delgado-Aparicio, Brian Grierson, and Ahmed Diallo.

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. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. 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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