Elena Belova

I Am the Lab-History Elena Belova

Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

June 20, 2024

“I always liked physics and solving problems, and that in itself is a motivation. As for fusion, I think it’s good to have a final goal somewhere, even if it’s far away. If fusion energy succeeds, it would be very useful for everybody.”

– Elena Belova


Title & Department: Principal research physicist and leader of the Burning Plasma Group, Theory Department

Year started at PPPL: 1997

Elena Belova is a trailblazer. The second female physicist in the Theory Department, she came to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) when most theoretical physicists still used pencil and paper, and female physicists were rare. 

She has devoted her career to the development of novel numerical and theoretical models, writing complex computer codes and applying them to experiments. Belova uses these codes to model the behavior of the electrically charged gas called a plasma in experiments aimed at developing fusion energy as a safe, clean and virtually limitless energy source.

Belova has mostly worked on research related to the fusion concept called field-reversed configuration (FRC), the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) and the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), as well as the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics. More recently, she has collaborated with private fusion energy companies through the DOE’s Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) grants.

“The field of plasma physics changed a lot during my lifetime,” Belova said. “When I was a student, back in Russia and here in the U.S., people who were doing true theory did it with pen and paper, and they looked down somewhat on people doing computer simulations, considering it to be a lesser technical work. But now, it’s very different. While the analytical work is still very useful and valuable, huge codes are now routinely used to model experiments realistically, and a lot of people are involved in the development and maintenance of these codes.”

Much of Belova’s work has been focused on development and application of her plasma simulation code, called HYM. The code can model plasma as a fluid, but it also allows researchers to simulate the full motion of individual charged particles, providing a more detailed picture of plasma’s behavior. Belova’s research on field reversed configurations has been applied to many FRC experiments, including the SSX at Swarthmore College and private companies TAE Technologies in Foothill Ranch, California, and Helion Energy Inc. in Everett, Washington, both of which are based on the FRC concept.

Discouraged from studying physics

Belova grew up outside Moscow. While she was always interested in physics, family and friends tried to talk her out of majoring in physics in college, telling her it would be too difficult for a woman to succeed as a physicist. For her first three years at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, she studied applied mathematics, switching to the physics department in her final three years and earning a master's degree in plasma physics. In retrospect, Belova said she was happy she obtained the applied mathematics background because she studied a lot of numerical methods and programming languages, which stood her in good stead for the rest of her career.

She worked briefly at the Space Research Institute in Moscow before coming to the U.S. in 1992 with her husband Alexander V. Khrabrov, who is also a physicist. She attended graduate school at Dartmouth College, earning her doctorate degree in physics in 1997.

The second female physicist in the Theory Department

When Belova started at PPPL, she was the second female physicist in the Theory Department after well-known physicist Katherine Weimer, who had left PPPL more than a decade earlier. Although she was encouraged by her mentor Ron Davidson (a former PPPL director), Belova said those first few years were challenging. “I was not a minority, I was a singularity,” she said. “I think my colleagues were rather skeptical and suspicious about female researchers in general.” She felt further isolated by her nationality, background and even her research, which at the time centered on FRC and was not a mainstream fusion topic in the Theory Department.

Collaborations on NSTX

Belova did collaborate on FRCs with experimentalists, including Masaaki Yamada, a principal research physicist, and Hantao Ji, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and a distinguished research fellow. She eventually started working on NSTX as well, collaborating with Nikolai Gorelenkov and Eric Fredrickson, principal research physicists at PPPL, and Neal Crocker, a visiting research scientist at PPPL who was then a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. NSTX, the precursor to the NSTX-U, is a spherical tokamak, an experimental device shaped like a cored apple. Spherical tokamaks are more compact than traditional doughnut-shaped devices and are a possible model for future fusion energy plants.

Recognition for her work

In 2005, Belova received the Katherine Weimer Award for women in plasma physics — a national recognition named for her predecessor. The award cited her “pioneering analytical and numerical contributions to the fundamental physics of magnetically confined plasmas.” In 2020, she was elected to the American Physical Society “for outstanding contributions to the development of novel numerical and theoretical models leading to improved understanding of the behavior of highly energetic particles and associated plasma instabilities in compact tori and spherical tokamaks.” Belova has been on the editorial board of the journal Physics of Plasmas for the past several years.

Hotline cover November 2005

Belova’s election to the American Physical Society in 2005 was a headline in the “Hotline” newsletter. (Credit: PPPL archives)

Belova and her husband live in Belle Mead, New Jersey, with their adult son, Dmitry Khrabrov.

Describe your job:

“I mostly use numerical simulations to model different experiments, trying to reproduce and understand the experimental results,” Belova said. “Unfortunately, some of my time also goes into proposal and white papers writing. I am also a leader of the Burning Plasma Group. The main thing I am supposed to do is the research — either writing equations, trying to understand something, or modifying the code and doing simulations.

“I was hired to modify an existing tokamak code to model a field reversed configuration. After a few months, I decided it would be easier to write a new code, and I have modified the 2-D gyrokinetic code, which I did my thesis on, to model the FRCs, and I’m still using and working on this code!”

Three things about yourself:

  1. “I enjoy gardening of all kinds. We have a large yard, and I planted over 150 trees and shrubs there. I also have a vegetable garden and flowers everywhere.”
  2. “I like to play chess to the point of addiction. I play chess online. It’s kind of like science, only with a faster gratification. With science, you try to solve a problem, and it takes a while; with chess, you can win a game and feel good.”
  3. “I also like reading books, but now I’ve discovered audiobooks. I find it’s very convenient because I can do gardening at the same time.
Elena Belova standing outside an entranceway

Belova at the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, where she was attending a conference in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Elena Belova / PPPL)

What was your favorite experiment?

“We’re still finding some exciting theoretical problems motivated by the results from the NSTX and NSTX-U. I think that spherical tokamaks are interesting because their geometry is more compact and they have larger plasma pressure, which changes physics compared to conventional tokamaks, and there are new things to be discovered. I find it very motivational when new experimental results are found and some kind of theoretical explanation is needed. It’s very satisfying to see your code, which is large and complicated, actually reproduces the experimental results. Unlike experiments, in the simulations you can look at everything, trying to understand what is going on. In an experiment with a hot plasma, you cannot stick a probe in. Besides, I have very good experimental collaborators."

What does working at PPPL mean to you?

“I always liked physics and solving problems, and that in itself is a motivation. As for fusion, I think it’s good to have a final goal somewhere, even if it’s far away. If fusion energy succeeds, it would be very useful for everybody.”

Belova hiking at Lake Lama

Belova hiking at Lake Lama in the Putorana Plateau in the Putorana Mountains in the north-central area of Russia near Norilsk. (Photo courtesy of Elena Belova / PPPL)