Michael D Williams
Williams, the Engineer’s Engineer, sets standard for excellence
As an early career engineer at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Mike Williams found himself in the midst of a frantic race. He led a team charged with building crucial neutral beam heating systems for the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), the largest fusion facility in the world at the time. The deadline was impossibly tight.
“We worked 16-hour days, Monday through Friday, and came in every Saturday and worked eight-to-10-hour days,” Williams said. “And we were successful — we got the beams on and they worked.”
Such dedication, plus a singular knack for solving problems, helped propel Williams into his post as head of engineering and infrastructure at PPPL — a position he has held since 1991. The job calls for steering all engineering activities at the Laboratory, from the design of power systems to construction of the $94 million upgrade of the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX-U), PPPL’s major fusion facility today. He oversees the Lab’s heating, air conditioning and plumbing systems as well.
“It’s an enormous responsibility,” PPPL Director Stewart Prager said of Williams’ role. “His importance cannot be overstated since so much of what we do rests upon engineering—building things that would be difficult for other laboratories around the world to build. Mike makes these things happen through his oversight.”
Williams, whose title includes that of associate director of PPPL, began tinkering with machines as a youngster in Hamilton, N.J. “I always had an aptitude for fixing and building things,” he recalled. “I didn’t play with radios or anything like that, but if the lawnmower broke I’d try to fix it.”
He excelled in math and science but gave little thought to engineering until his senior year in high school. That’s when a friend who was entering the Rutgers University School of Engineering showed Williams the first-year course load. “They were all math and science courses,” Williams recalled. “I like math and science and I didn’t know what an engineer did at the time. But the curriculum seemed interesting and that started me on my way.”
PPPL was nearing a new era when Williams joined the Lab in 1976 as a Rutgers-trained electrical engineer. Just ahead lay construction of the TFTR, which was completed in 1982 and set world records for producing fusion heat and power before it was decommissioned in the late 1990s.
Williams moved to the TFTR project in 1981 as head of the engineering team for neutral beam systems that inject heat into plasma, the hot, electrically charged gas that fuels fusion reactions. The group, known as the “Beam Team,” needed to get the beams up and running soon after TFTR began operating so that physicists could present the results to a high-profile conference that was just months away. “It wasn’t obvious in any given week that we were going to meet the objectives for that week,” Williams said. “We just worked super-long hours to make it happen. It was a lot of fun in retrospect but it was quite difficult.”
Subsequent work on the huge fusion machine also proved consuming. “All the way through the TFTR days it was quite typical for many on the staff to work lots of hours because they enjoyed what they were doing,” Williams said.
His skill at sleuthing out solutions to problems dazzled his colleagues. “Mike has some of the fastest brain circuits I’ve ever seen,” said Tim Stevenson, who heads the PPPL project management office and was part of the Beam Team. “He’ll assimilate details and come to a decision with the speed of thought. The uncanny thing was that he was almost always correct.”
Williams rose rapidly at the Laboratory, becoming head of all TFTR heating systems in 1988 and then director of the Engineering and Infrastructure Department in 1991. He attributes his swift rise to his love for the work and to the “very notable people” who mentored him. “I developed a work ethic and desire to do well from those people,” he said. At the same time, “The team that I worked with was very talented and that helped me shine as much as anything.”
Williams deftly juggles tasks as the head of engineering. He oversaw construction of the NSTX, bringing it in within budget and six weeks ahead of schedule when the work was completed in 1999. The feat earned him the 1999 Kaul Foundation Prize for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research and Technology Development from Princeton University. “I recognized that time is money and the more time you spend trying to get ready to run the more money you’re spending on the project,” he said.
His intimate knowledge of the NSTX enabled him to guide efforts that pinpointed the cause of a short circuit that halted a fusion experiment a few months before the machine was to shut down for the upgrade. The probe traced the source to three tiny spots of solder in a 20-foot long copper coil in the NSTX center stack. “It was literally finding a needle in a haystack,” Williams said. Engineers applied lessons learned from analysis of the spots to the design for coils for the upgrade.
Williams keeps a savvy eye on work on the upgrade, which will double the facility’s heating and magnetic power when the job is completed in 2014. He joins every engineering review and offers up suggestions. “He’s deeply immersed in the project,” said Stevenson. “And I’m glad that he is.”
Williams’ achievements are nationally recognized. His honors include the 2000 Outstanding Accomplishment Award from the American Nuclear Society Fusion Energy Division; the 1999 Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award from Fusion Power Associates; and the 1993 Fusion Technology Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. All saluted his contributions to the design and construction of fusion facilities.
Williams unwinds by riding his mountain and road bikes and regularly working out at the gym. He and his wife, Sue, a technology teacher at Trenton Catholic Academy, frequently travel to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — both for the fun of it and to see their older daughter, Christine, who works as a performer in the special events group. “My whole life I’ve loved Disney,” said Williams, whose bookcase sports three Disney-themed Pez candy dispensers alongside work memorabilia. The couple’s younger daughter, Michelle, recently became coordinator of gifted and talented programs for the Millstone School District.
While Williams no longer works 80-hour weeks, he finds ways to keep up with his job even when he’s not on it. “I do a lot of work on my iPhone standing in line at Disney,” he said. “The technology enables you to contribute productively no matter where you are.”