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New engineering head Valeria Riccardo has two decades of experience on fusion experiments

Valeria Riccardo, new head of engineering at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, is a United Kingdom transplant who comes to the position with more than 20 years of experience in project management, fusion design, and analysis on two fusion devices in the U.K. that are similar to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U).  

For the last five years, Riccardo was chief engineer for the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, England, the U.K.’s national laboratory for fusion research, which operates the Joint European Torus (JET) and the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) facility, two fusion devices called tokamaks. JET shut down operations in November to prepare for fusion experiments using tritium. MAST has been undergoing a major upgrade and is also expected to restart operation this year as MAST-U, a sister facility to NSTX-U.

“We are fortunate to have Valeria as our new head of engineering,” said Terry Brog, interim director of PPPL. “Her engineering experience on the JET and MAST facilities, along with her academic background make her uniquely suited to lead our engineering department.”

As head of engineering, Riccardo will head PPPL’s largest department, with 240 staff members. She said she welcomes the opportunity to work directly with an engineering staff. She came to PPPL, she said, because she was looking for a new challenge and wanted to continue her work in developing fusion energy. “I wanted something different and PPPL is a respected fusion research center,” Riccardo said. “I'm still a believer in fusion energy. I would like to contribute to getting a sustainable energy source, so I gave fusion another chance in another place!”

In her previous position, Riccardo was in charge of analyzing designs for JET and MAST. She said uncertainty over research funding after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, known as Brexit, was another factor in her decision to come to PPPL.

The intersection of plasma physics and engineering

Rich Hawryluk, a PPPL physicist, met Riccardo when he served on an external review team when JET was assessed for readiness to start its next deuterium-tritium program. Hawryluk said Riccardo’s background is a perfect fit for PPPL. “I’m looking forward to working with her in her new role because her work will strongly impact the work on NSTX-U,” he said. “Her early work shows a good understanding of the intersection of plasma physics and engineering and very often the difficult problems in fusion are at the intersection of plasma physics and engineering.”

Riccardo said coming to PPPL gives her the opportunity to learn about PPPL’s main experiment. “It makes my introduction easier because it’s closer to what I used to do – it’s more technical,” she said.

Riccardo’s interest in physics goes back to when she was at school in Torino, a northern Italian city near the French border. She always wanted to be a physicist but her father insisted she study engineering because he thought she would have more job prospects as an engineer. Riccardo received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Politecnico di Torino and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Imperial College in London, along with a doctorate in energetics from the Politecnico di Torino.

She was inspired to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering in part because of the energy crisis in Italy, Riccardo said. At one point, fuel was so scarce that government officials banned car travel for vacations on weekends. She picked nuclear engineering despite the fact that job prospects were slim following the 1987 referendum, which banned nuclear power plants and lead to the closure of its last four in 1990. So when Riccardo graduated, she got a job at JET as an engineering analyst and moved to England.

Riccardo’s first project at JET was to help solve a problem that was caused by a certain kind of plasma disruption. When the plasma kinked and twisted in a phenomenon known as “asymmetrical vertical displacement events,” it caused a huge kick that moved the entire machine sideways by millimeters.

Riccardo’s dissertation describes how the phenomenon works. Researchers now know how to avoid asymmetric disruptions and reduce the electromechanical and thermal loads of disruption. They achieve this by injecting large amounts of hydrogen or deuterium  mixed with high-Z gases when the plasma is likely to disrupt.

ITER-like Wall project

Before her most recent position, Riccardo was deputy engineering design and manufacture team leader for the ITER-like Wall (ILW) project at JET for six years. She is proud of having translated the physicists’ requirements into feasible concepts and working to see them become a reality.

The idea of the project was to use the same materials on the interior of the tokamak as those that will be used on the interior of the ITER tokamak, the international fusion experiment being built in Cadarache, France. JET installed beryllium tiles on the interior of the tokamak and covered the divertor with tungsten.

Both beryllium and tungsten are brittle and can easily crack so Riccardo and her team inserted tiny grooves in the tiles that serve as “pre-made cracks so they can breathe,” Riccardo explained. “It’s operated for five years and nothing has fallen off,” she said.

Now Riccardo and her husband, Peter Mandryk, and their three boys, Nicholas, 14; Alexander, 11; and Christopher, 10, are adjusting to life in the United States after moving here just before Christmas. Riccardo said they are enjoying the snow, which is rare in England. The boys are enjoying their new location, and practice basketball (weather permitting). They recently began attending their new schools and will continue playing soccer “or as we call it ‘football’ ” in the U.K. Riccardo also enjoys hiking and hopes to find some good trails in New Jersey. 

Riccardo said she welcomes the opportunity to use her skills overseeing work on the NSTX-U. At the same time, she will be looking ahead to PPPL’s future engineering projects. “I am trying to understand where we are and where we want to go,” she said. “Once I get that, I can start thinking about goals for PPPL’s engineering department.”

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.


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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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