Yuhu Zhai named PPPL Distinguished Engineering Fellow of 2023

Written by
Rachel Kremen
Dec. 8, 2023

Yuhu Zhai, a principal engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), was selected as the Lab’s 2023 Distinguished Engineering Fellow. Zhai won the award for excellence and innovation in engineering analysis, project leadership and the development of high-temperature superconducting magnet technology.

“Since arriving at PPPL in 2010, Yuhu Zhai has established himself as one of our premier technical leaders,” said PPPL Director Steve Cowley. “His talent and versatility as an engineer and researcher make him a clear choice for selection as the 2023 PPPL Distinguished Engineer.”

Cowley presented the award during the State of the Lab event on Dec. 7. The gathering is an annual celebration of the Lab’s accomplishments over the past year.

“I’m quite surprised,” Zhai said. “I feel extremely honored to be recognized.”

Developing revolutionary magnets

Superconducting magnets are an important part of the next step in magnetic fusion devices beyond pulsed machines like the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), the primary fusion experiment at the Lab. Magnetic fields confine a plasma so that it can be used to generate fusion energy. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, making up approximately 99% of the visible universe, including the sun and stars. Zhai’s work could revolutionize how these magnets are made, as they would be solely composed of metal, require no conventional type of epoxy insulation and be more tolerant to the radiation produced during fusion. This would eliminate costly steps in their manufacturing and potentially reduce the risk of malfunction. These magnets might also allow fusion reactors to operate at higher temperatures.

“If you can generate a higher magnetic field, that basically means much more fusion energy can be produced from the same volume of plasma in a vessel,” said Zhai.

PPPL principal engineer Yuhu Zhai.

PPPL principal engineer Yuhu Zhai. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL)

Leading the next generation of PPPL engineers

Michael Ford, associate laboratory director for engineering at PPPL, noted that Zhai’s abilities go far beyond his technical skills. “Yuhu is a tremendous asset to the Lab, providing important guidance to our new team members, including junior researchers, engineers and summer interns. He helps the whole team share ideas and consolidate solutions.”

Zhai said the key to being a good leader is listening and communication. “You need to make sure everyone is on the same page and sees the big picture. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work closely with a talented and dedicated team at the Lab, always with the strong support from the project and Lab management.”

After pursuing a master’s degree in computational mechanics at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Zhai completed his doctoral degree in engineering mechanics with a minor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida in 2003. He first worked on high-field superconducting magnets and learned about high-temperature superconductors at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. Before that, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University. He also worked as an engineering consultant on projects related to the remote sensing of space plasma.

Zhai said he chose engineering as a profession because it allows him to understand the phenomena of daily life better. “You can use physics and math to understand what’s really going on.” 

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.