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New PPPL Director Steve Cowley is honored with knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II

Steven Cowley, newly named director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) effective July 1, has received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth “for services to science and the development of nuclear fusion.” 

Now known formally as Sir Steven Cowley, he previously was chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Research, and most recently was president and professor of physics at Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.

“Princeton is truly delighted that Steve is coming to lead the Lab,” said Dave McComas, Princeton University Vice President for PPPL. “His contributions earlier in his career in the U.S. and then more recently in Europe have been stellar and we are counting on him to lead PPPL to new heights.” 

The honor was announced on June 9 in The Queen’s Birthday Honours, which recognizes the achievements of extraordinary individuals across the United Kingdom. 

“I am personally delighted and humbled,” Cowley said. “I have been privileged to work with many extraordinary people in fusion research. This honor reflects the huge importance of our collective work developing new, clean forms of energy production.” 

Rich Hawryluk, a physicist and currently interim director of PPPL, said: “This is a most deserved honor. Steve’s role in advancing fusion energy and his stellar leadership in the field over the years are testimony to his knowledge, skill and acumen. We are thrilled he is bringing his expertise to PPPL and continuing to lead the world’s quest for fusion energy from here.”

The current chief executive of UKAEA, Ian Chapman, said: “I am so pleased for Steve receiving this award. It is fully deserved for all his hard work in fusion over the years – undertaking research, leading us for eight years so effectively and his unstinting efforts to publicize fusion at every opportunity.” 

Greg Hammett, a principal research physicist at PPPL who earned his doctorate from Princeton University the year after Cowley, said: “It's nice to see that the Queen is still knighting people for slaying fire-breathing dragons, of the plasma instability variety.” One of Cowley’s scientific contributions, Hammett said, has been on the understanding and controlling of plasma instabilities, types of weaknesses that can reduce or halt fusion reactions. “These are important steps toward making fusion energy more practical,” Hammett said. 

Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, is the fusing of light atomic elements in the form of plasma — the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei — that generates massive amounts of energy. Scientists are seeking to replicate fusion on Earth for a virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate electricity in what might be called a “star in a jar.”

A fusion theorist, Cowley will become the seventh director of PPPL, one of 10 national science laboratories funded by the DOE’s Office of Science. Princeton has managed PPPL since its origin in 1951, when Professor Lyman Spitzer, a founder of the field of plasma physics, initiated the study of fusion at the University.

Cowley earned his Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton in 1985, was a staff scientist at PPPL from 1987 to 1993, and also taught at the University. In his new role, Cowley will be appointed professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton.

Culham operates the Joint European Torus (JET) and Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) fusion facilities. During Cowley’s tenure, he led the fusion research program and provided the vision and strategy for fusion in the United Kingdom. His role included overseeing more than 1,000 employees and contractors and having management authority for implementation and operations for the Culham Laboratory and the UKAEA.

In parallel, he expanded and strengthened relations with other fusion programs in Europe and around the world, and served in key advisory roles for the U.K., U.S. and European governments. Cowley is a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Oxford.

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.

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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