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Physicist Dan Boyer wins Early Career Award for research in Artificial Intelligence methods to advance fusion energy

Dan Boyer, a physicist and developer of innovative artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning methods to produce real-time adjustments to the plasma that fuels fusion reactions in devices known as spherical tokamaks, has won a highly competitive and prestigious U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career Award. Spherical tokamaks are compact fusion facilities such as the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) at the DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) that are shaped more like cored apples than the doughnut-like shape of conventional tokamaks.

Exceptional potential

Boyer’s five-year award was among 83 that the DOE Office of Science made in 2021 to support critical research at U.S. universities and national laboratories. For national lab winners the awards carry grants of $500,000 per year. All 83 awardees “show exceptional potential to help us tackle America’s toughest challenges and secure our economic competitiveness for decades to come,”said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

“Receiving the award is very exciting,” Boyer said. “It will support myself and other researchers to build on initial progress in accelerating predictive models with machine learning methods. The tools we will be developing will help operators leverage simulations and previous experimental results to optimize the performance of upcoming experiments. This will help NSTX-U achieve its research goals more rapidly.”

He added, “The approaches will be applied to other spherical tokamaks as well.  The award will be a great opportunity to collaborate with devices at other facilities, like MAST-U in the United Kingdom.”

Boyer has actively advanced machine learning at PPPL. “Dan has made great strides in employing machine learning methods for characterizing profiles of both the thermal plasma and the energetic particles that heat the plasma,” said Stan Kaye, head of research on the NSTX-U, the flagship fusion facility at PPPL. “The scope of work in Dan’s award will be of tremendous benefit for operating tokamaks in both safe and performance-optimized regimes.” 

Model for future facilities

The compact design of spherical tokamaks produces high-pressure plasmas — essential ingredients for fusion reactions — with relatively low and cost-effective magnetic fields. This capability makes spherical tokamaks a potential model for future fusion facilities.

Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, combines light elements in the form of plasma — the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that makes up 99 percent of the visible universe — to generate massive amounts of energy. Scientists around the world are seeking to produce and control fusion on Earth for a virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate safe and clean electricity.

Boyer earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Lehigh University in 2013 and joined PPPL that year. While a graduate student at Lehigh and an undergraduate at York College Pennsylvania he was actively engaged in a wide range of roles. At Lehigh he designed and tested algorithms to optimize the power produced by nuclear fusion reactors, assisted students during office hours, and conducted research at CEA Cadarache, a leading research center for atomic and alternative energy systems in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France. As an undergraduate student he held industrial positions ranging from designing plant layouts to modeling and designing custom parts and assemblies for a sheet metal laser cutting company.

When not working on projects at PPPL Dan plays guitar, records music with friends, and with his wife, Amber, maintains a vegetable garden that has grape vines and fruit trees. The family’s latest venture is entertaining their 1-month old son, Noah.

Boyer is the ninth PPPL physicist to receive an early career award since the Office of Science launched the current awards program in 2010. Previous PPPL winners were Jong Kyu-Park, 2010; Ahmed Diallo, 2013; Brian Grierson, 2014; Louis Delgado-Aparicio, 2015; Egemen Kolemen, 2016; Nate Ferraro and Sam Lazerson, 2018; and Timothy Stoltzfus-Dueck; 2019.

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 single largest 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, visit energy.gov/science.

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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