Finding the questions that guide MIT fusion research | MIT News

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“One of the things I learned was, doing good science isn’t so much about finding the answers as figuring out what the important questions are.”

As Martin Greenwald retires from the responsibilities of senior scientist and deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), he reflects on his almost 50 years of science study, 43 of them as a researcher at MIT, pursuing the question of how to make the carbon-free energy of fusion a reality.

Most of Greenwald’s important questions about fusion began after graduating from MIT with a BS in both physics and chemistry. Beginning graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, he felt compelled to learn more about fusion as an energy source that could have “a real societal impact.” At the time, researchers were exploring new ideas for devices that could create and confine fusion plasmas. Greenwald worked on Berkeley’s “alternate concept” TORMAC, a Toroidal Magnetic Cusp. “It didn’t work out very well,” he laughs. “The first thing I was known for was making the measurements that shut down the program.”

Believing the temperature of the plasma generated by the device would not be as high as his group leader expected, Greenwald developed hardware that could measure the low temperatures predicted by his own “back of the envelope calculations.” As he anticipated, his measurements showed that “this was not a fusion plasma; this was hardly a confined plasma at all.”

With a PhD from Berkeley, Greenwald returned to MIT for a research position at the PSFC, attracted by the center’s “esprit de corps.”

He arrived in time to participate in the final experiments on Alcator A, the first in a series of tokamaks built at MIT, all characterized by compact size and featuring high-field magnets. The tokamak design was then becoming favored as the most effective route to fusion: its doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, surrounded by electromagnets, could confine the turbulent plasma long enough, while increasing its heat and density, to make fusion occur.

Alcator A showed that the energy confinement time improves in relation to increasing plasma density. MIT’s succeeding device, Alcator C, was designed to use higher magnetic fields, boosting expectations that it would reach higher densities and better confinement. To attain these goals, however, Greenwald had to pursue a new technique that increased density by injecting pellets of frozen fuel into the plasma, a method he likens to throwing “snowballs in hell.” This work was notable for the creation of a new regime of enhanced plasma confinement on Alcator C. In those experiments, a confined plasma surpassed for the first time one of the two Lawson criteria — the minimum required value for the product of the plasma density and confinement time — for making net power from fusion. This had been a milestone for fusion research since their publication by John Lawson in 1957.

Greenwald continued to make a name for himself as part of a larger study into the physics of the Compact Ignition Tokamak — a high-field burning plasma experiment that the U.S. program was proposing to build in the late 1980s. The result, unexpectedly, was a new scaling law, later known as the “Greenwald Density Limit,” and a new theory for the mechanism of the limit. It has been used to accurately predict performance on much larger machines built since.

The center’s next tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, started operation in 1993 and ran for more than 20 years, with Greenwald as the chair of its Experimental Program Committee. Larger than Alcator C, the new device supported a highly shaped plasma, strong radiofrequency heating, and an all-metal plasma-facing first wall. All of these would eventually be required in a fusion power system.

C-Mod proved to be MIT’s most enduring fusion experiment to date, producing important results for 20 years. During that time Greenwald contributed not only to the experiments, but to mentoring the next generation. Research scientist Ryan Sweeney notes that “Martin quickly gained my trust as a mentor, in part due to his often casual dress and slightly untamed hair, which are embodiments of his transparency and his focus on what matters. He can quiet a room of PhDs and demand attention not by intimidation, but rather by his calmness and his ability to bring clarity to complicated problems, be they scientific or human in nature.”

Greenwald worked closely with the group of students who, in PSFC Director Dennis Whyte’s class, came up with the tokamak concept that evolved into SPARC. MIT is now pursuing this compact, high-field tokamak with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup that grew out of the collective enthusiasm for this concept, and the growing realization it could work. Greenwald now heads the Physics Group for the SPARC project at MIT. He has helped confirm the device’s physics basis in order to predict performance and guide engineering decisions.

“Martin’s multifaceted talents are thoroughly embodied by, and imprinted on, SPARC” says Whyte. “First, his leadership in its plasma confinement physics validation and publication place SPARC on a firm scientific footing. Secondly, the impact of the density limit he discovered, which shows that fuel density increases with magnetic field and decreasing the size of the tokamak, is critical in obtaining high fusion power density not just in SPARC, but in future power plants. Third, and perhaps most impressive, is Martin’s mentorship of the SPARC generation of leadership.”

Greenwald’s expertise and easygoing personality have made him an asset as head of the PSFC Office for Computer Services and group leader for data acquisition and computing, and sought for many professional committees. He has been an APS Fellow since 2000, and was an APS Distinguished Lecturer in Plasma Physics (2001-02). He was also presented in 2014 with a Leadership Award from Fusion Power Associates. He is currently an associate editor for Physics of Plasmas and a member of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Physical Sciences Directorate External Review Committee.

Although leaving his full-time responsibilities, Greenwald will remain at MIT as a visiting scientist, a role he says will allow him to “stick my nose into everything without being responsible for anything.”

“At some point in the race you have to hand off the baton,“ he says. “And it doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the outcome; and it doesn’t mean you’re just going to walk away into the stands. I want to be there at the end when we succeed.”



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