Plasma physics graduate student Eduardo Rodriguez wins prestigious Fellowship

Written by
Anna Masciandaro
Oct. 27, 2021

Eduardo Rodriguez, a graduate student in the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has won a highly selective Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Fellowship from Princeton University that provides winners full tuition and a stipend for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Rodriguez, who is in his fifth and final year of the graduate program, was delighted to win the award. “It feels good to see the work done over the last years rewarded in this form,” he said. “It’s a great recognition and it’s good motivation to keep working. It also constitutes a good accolade toward pursuing a career after graduating.”

Rodriguez is studying twisty fusion designs called stellarators under the supervision of Amitava Bhattacharjee, Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences and former head of the PPPL Theory Department. “It’s a very competitive fellowship because every department in the university nominates their best students,” said Bhattacharjee. “I am delighted and, as his advisor, proud that the university chose him for the fellowship.”

Rodriguez focuses on quasisymmetric stellarators, a class of fusion confinement designs that has potentially game-changing capabilities. Quasisymmetric stellarators share most of the benefits of tokamaks, fully symmetric doughnut-shaped fusion facilities. Quasisymmetric stellarators provide good particle confinement without the risk of sudden disruptions that tokamaks face and can operate in a steady state. “We can confidently state that the potential of these studies is both conceptually interesting and potentially instrumental in the design of the next generation of fusion devices,” Rodriguez said.

It was previously believed that quasisymmetric stellarators cannot be constructed. However, Rodriguez and others have investigated the properties and fundamentals of quasisymmetry from the ground up and obtained theoretical results that suggest the opposite, that is, it may be possible to realize quasisymmetric stellarators under reasonable conditions. “By redefining the governing concepts and carefully studying the many aspects and properties, we hope to identify the limitations and additional features of these designs,” he said. “An important insight gained from our work is that the limitations to building these quasisymmetric configurations are not necessarily as hard as it was believed.”

“Hopefully, this will make people look more intensely for such designs through optimization or other means,” Rodriguez said. “These designs could prove to be important in designing a competitive direct alternative to the tokamak.”

Said Bhattacharjee: “Eduardo has made seminal advances in long-standing problems that were unresolved in the stellarator community. His work has quite profound fundamental implications and is likely to influence practical designs as we move forward.”

Rodriguez received an undergraduate degree in physics at Oxford University in 2017 and participated in a variety of internships that covered experimental projects ranging from studying properties of condensed matter physics to putting together an interferometric measurement of gas density for laser-plasma experiments.

“Since going to college to study physics, the idea of fusion as an energy source has been in the back of my mind,” he said. “It was one of the main drivers of pursuing my studies, and now being a Ph.D. candidate, I thoroughly enjoy understanding physics and doing mathematics. The possibility of working for a goal that can prove beneficial to society at large has always been a decisive extra.”

Rodriguez is the fifth graduate student in the Program in Plasma Physics Program to win a Procter fellowship in recent years. Previous winners include Ian Ochs (2020); Alexander Glasser (2019); Jonathan Squire (2015), a faculty member at the University of Otago in New Zealand; Paul Schmit (2013), a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories who won a Presidential Early Career Award in 2019; and Nate Ferraro (2006), a physicist in the PPPL Theory 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.