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Head of NSTX-U research is appointed deputy director for research at PPPL as former deputy director moves to new strategic planning position as chief scientist

Jon Menard, the head of research on the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has been named the new PPPL deputy director for research. He replaces Michael Zarnstorff, the deputy director for the past decade, who becomes the chief scientist at PPPL, a position that will oversee strategic scientific planning. 

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, announced the reorganization to PPPL staff on April 1. “Jon is superbly qualified to help run the research enterprise – its full scope, not just of fusion but all of our scientific enterprises,” Cowley said. “I am truly thrilled to have Jon in this capacity, and I look forward to working with him to ensure the Lab is creating vital new knowledge in plasma physics, fusion research, and other scientific endeavors.” 

“I’m very excited to lead the superb PPPL research team in advancing fusion research and plasma physics more broadly,” Menard said, “and I look forward to working with Steve in implementing the Laboratory’s vision.”   

Thanking Zarnstorff 

Cowley thanked Zarnstorff for his 10 years as deputy director “overseeing an array of scientific and technical research that has helped make this Lab the jewel of the fusion and plasma scientific community.” Cowley said the role of chief scientist “has become a critical need at the Lab, and there is no one better suited for it than Mike.” 

Physicist Stanley Kaye, the deputy program director of NSTX-U and head of NSTX-U physics analysis, will serve as interim head of research for NSTX-U while PPPL conducts a nationwide search. 

A physicist at PPPL for 20 years, Menard graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992 with a degree in nuclear engineering and received a Ph.D. in plasma physics from the Princeton University Department of Astrophysical Sciences in 1998. After working as a post-doctoral researcher at PPPL for one year, he joined the staff in 1999, the same year the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) began operations. 

Many honors for Menard 

Menard’s research has garnered numerous honors including a U.S. Department of Energy Magnetic Fusion Science Fellowship in 1993 and the Princeton University Honorific Fellowship in 1996. He received  the “Best Student Paper” award from the American Nuclear Society Fusion Energy Division in 1998 and was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering in 2004, and the Kaul Prize in 2006. He was named a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2010 and was co-winner of an R&D 100 award in 2012. 

Menard helped design the upgraded NSTX-U, which added a second neutral beam and a more powerful central magnet. The  additions will double the magnetic field strength and the plasma current and increase the maximum length of the current from one to five seconds. In addition to being director of the research program, he also directed the NSTX-U Recovery Program for the past two years, which is repairing the device. 

Menard has led collaborative studies of a fusion nuclear science facility and pilot plant concept at PPPL. He chaired the U.S. Fusion Facilities Coordinating Committee from 2016 to 2018 and co-chaired the U.S. Magnetic Fusion Research Strategic Directions Workshop in 2018. He has served on several advisory committees in the international fusion community in China, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, and on a design review committee for ITER. 

Broad research interests

Menard’s research interests include the equilibrium and stability properties of spherical torus (ST) and tokamak plasmas, advanced operating scenarios, and the development of next-step options for fusion energy. Cowley said Menard’s recent research, which has demonstrated how a compact tokamak equipped with high temperature superconducting magnets could provide a less expensive method for producing fusion energy, has been “very significant, very influential” in the fusion community.  

The research, said Cowley, has influenced the recent National Academies of Science report that calls for a U.S. program to develop a compact fusion pilot plant to generate electricity at the lowest possible cost.  Menard presented a paper to a Royal Society workshop in London on the subject, which was recently published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. (See story here) 

Menard will join Craig Ferguson, who became PPPL’s deputy director for operations in February, in PPPL’s top leadership, along with Kristen Fischer, the head of business operations and chief financial officer; Rich Hawryluk, associate director for fusion; and Mike Zarnstorff. 

Zarnstorff: a focus on collaborations 

As deputy director of research for the past 10 years, Zarnstorff oversaw PPPL’s entire research program, including NSTX and NSTX-U research, Theory and computation, PPPL’s collaborations on Cmod and DIII-D,   and PPPL’s wide-ranging plasma physics and technology programs. This also included the LDRD program a recent upgrade of the Lithium Tokamak Experiment (LTX-ß), which studies how lithium can be used to improve plasma performance in fusion experiments, the funding of the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment (FLARE), which will study magnetic reconnection, the mysterious process that occurs throughout the universe and leads to solar flares, northern lights and geomagnetic storms. 

Under Zarnstorff’s leadership, PPPL became part of  the Exascale Computing Project, a national initiative to accelerate delivery of advanced research on the next generation of supercomputers. Two teams led by PPPL researchers have won time on supercomputers to develop complex models to predict plasma behavior in fusion experiments. Zarnstorff has also helped strengthen PPPL’s collaborations with fusion experiments around the world, including the international ITER experiment, the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator experiment in Germany, and tokamak experiments in Asia and Europe. 

“We should all be proud of the many successes of the Lab,” Zarnstorff said. “It is a good time for me to shift and focus on future research directions for the Lab. I plan to turn my attention to the research directions for the next decade, and the projects we will need to do.”  

Zarnstorff graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in physics in 1984 and joined PPPL that year. He and physicist Stewart Prager, Zarnstorff’s thesis advisor at the time and more recently PPPL Director, discovered a phenomenon called the “bootstrap current” that helps sustain the tokamak magnetic field and control the current profile.. They received the American Physical Society’s 2008 Dawson Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics for the discovery.  Zarnstorff is a Fellow of the APS and was named a PPPL Distinguished Research Fellow in 1995. He served on the DOE Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC), three National Academy Panels, and many review and advisory committees. 

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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