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Phil Heitzenroeder named winner of the 2013 Fusion Technology Award

Phil Heitzenroeder, who leads the Mechanical Engineering Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and whose advice is sought by engineers around the world, has won the 2013 Fusion Technology Award.  The high honor from the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recognizes outstanding contributions to research and development in the field of fusion technology.

Heitzenroeder has contributed to the design and construction of many of the world’s major magnetic fusion facilities during a storied 40-year career at PPPL that includes more than 20 years as head of the Mechanical Engineering Division. That career has been marked by “increasing responsibilities, particularly in the magnet design and manufacturing area, for every experimental fusion device that PPPL has been associated with,” said Mike Williams, associate PPPL director for engineering and infrastructure and a winner of the Fusion Technology Award in 1993.

Heitzenroeder is famed for developing imaginative solutions to engineering challenges. “He’s probably the most creative person I’ve ever worked with,” said Wayne Reierson, a PPPL engineer currently on long-term assignment to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he serves as team leader for U.S. magnet systems contributions to ITER. “If there was a problem Phil could come up with half-a-dozen ways to solve it. New ideas just seem to come from him without any effort all.” 

 A graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Heitzenroeder first honed his skills in the PPPL magnetic coil shop during the 1970s. The copper, electricity-conducting coils are crucial to fusion research. They wind around fusion devices to create the magnetic fields that control the hot, charged plasma gas during experiments. Heitzenroeder helped design coils for the Princeton Large Torus and Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor facilities, both of which set world records for plasma temperature at the time.

Current projects from the Mechanical Engineering Division range from the design and analysis of coils for the $94 million upgrade of the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX-U), the Laboratory’s major fusion facility, to the development of in-vessel coils for ITER, the huge international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France. Another recent project has been a set of five coils that the Laboratory completed delivering this year to the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator fusion project in Greifswald, Germany.

“Phil has demonstrated his acumen by the range of technologies that he mastered, the enormous number of projects that have benefited from his influence, and the consistency with which he has brought them to successful conclusions,” said Timothy Stevenson, who heads engineering project management at the Laboratory.

Heitzenroeder’s 40-member team works on all aspects of mechanical engineering for fusion facilities. Such tasks include analysis of support structures for the NSTX-U, whose electric current and magnetic fields will be doubled when the work is completed in 2014. “This really pushes the envelope,” said Ron Strykowsky, who oversees the upgrade. “Every nut, bolt and weld has to be analyzed, and that’s all part of what Phil’s team does, and does well.”

Heitzenroeder’s influence is felt throughout the world fusion community. “It is no surprise that Phil has been asked to participate in virtually all of the design studies for the next generation of fusion devices,” said Al von Halle, the head of electrical engineering at PPPL.

 Heitzenroeder approaches the toughest tasks with unflagging optimism. “His upbeat personality and pleasant demeanor are often key to bringing conflicting opinions in the room to final agreement,” said Larry Dudek, the head of engineering fabrications and operations. “It is difficult to imagine the fusion community without Phil leading it.”

Heitzenroeder’s positive-minded approach to problems stems from a lifelong interest in the way that mechanisms work. “I always liked mechanical things,” he said. “I liked to go into plants and see how things were made. So when you think of a solution you try to think of what you’ve seen.”

He increases his store of knowledge through voracious reading. “Since I was a kid I’ve loved magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and auto magazines,” he said. “And these are marvelous times. You can go on the web and find out about everything and pick up incredible ideas that way.

As a manager of engineers at PPPL, Heitzenroeder sees himself as “sort of like a conductor of the incredibly capable band we have. My job is to do what I can to make it all work.” Heitzenroeder has done that well enough to win the Fusion Technology Award that he is to receive, together with a plaque and a check for $3,000, at the IEEE’s biennial Symposium on Fusion Engineering conference to be held the week of June 10 in San Francisco. The IEEE is the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.


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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