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Kritz research seeks to convert nuclear fusion promise to reality

A young man sees an old man planting a tree and asks him why he goes to the bother when he will not live to see the tree grow.

Because, the old man says, others will enjoy the tree and make use of it after he is gone. Because planting a tree is a good thing to do.

The age-old story applies to all scientists who conduct basic research: They seek answers to life’s fundamental mysteries even though it may take years or even decades for their work to find practical application.

The story packs a special punch for the tight-knit group of international scientists who conduct research into nuclear fusion, says Arnold Kritz. Nuclear fusion promises a future powered by inexhaustible supplies of clean, safe energy, says Kritz, a professor of physics at Lehigh and one of the world’s leading fusion experts.

But it could take scientists 40 more years of research and experiments, he says, to convert that dazzling promise to reality.

Fusion occurs when hydrogen atoms fuse under extreme heat and pressure, creating helium atoms and releasing large amounts of energy. Under the right conditions, the fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining and produces energy continuously. Fusion emits no pollutants, greenhouse gases, plutonium or uranium waste. It uses such a small amount of fuel that there is no danger of a leak on a deadly scale, Kritz says.

Kritz has studied fusion for 40 years. He and his Lehigh colleague, research scientist Glenn Bateman, collaborate with fusion researchers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Kritz has held visiting appointments or given seminars at most of the world’s major plasma physics laboratories—in England, Switzerland, California and elsewhere.

Recently, Kritz wrapped up four years of service with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Science, during which time he drove once a week to Washington, D.C., to monitor federal grants for fusion research.

A symposium in his honor

In July, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where Kritz was a visiting scientist for 22 years, held a two-day symposium to honor Kritz on his 70th birthday. Kritz resided in Princeton during the years he was a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

More than 50 scientists, many of them colleagues and former students, came from around the world to discuss the latest developments as well as their vision for the future in Kritz’s area of expertise—the modeling of physical phenomena in tokamaks, or fusion reactors.

The symposium also included a banquet honoring Kritz. Ninety guests, including scientists from the fusion community, members of the U.S. Department of Energy, and faculty from Lehigh and Hunter College, praised Kritz for his contributions as a scientist and leader in the fusion community and for the combined 15 years during which he chaired the physics departments at Lehigh and at Hunter.

Kritz and Bateman have developed a “predictive integrative model” that simulates on a computer the complex physical phenomena that occur inside a tokamak. The results of their simulations have been favorably compared with results from actual physical experiments conducted around the world.

The Lehigh simulations will help scientists predict the behavior of the world’s first large-scale, sustainable nuclear fusion reactor—the huge International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will be built in France over the next 10 years. The European Union, the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan are sharing in the $10 billion construction cost of ITER.

Praise from around the world

At his birthday symposium, Kritz was praised for his contributions as a scientist and as a manager.

Antoine Pochelon of the Center for Plasma Physics Research in Lausanne, Switzerland, said Kritz had made “invaluable” contributions to the center during two year-long sabbaticals. Pochelon invited Kritz to return to Lausanne with his wife to go rafting again down the Sarine River.

Valentin Smirnov, director of the Nuclear Fusion Institute at Russia’s Kurchatov Institute, praised Kritz for the codes he has written to model heating and current drive in tokamaks.

An MIT professor was more philosophical. “There is an old Neapolitan proverb concerning the 70th birthday,” said Bruno Coppi. “’One should not remind the Lord that we have reached this mark, as we have skipped His attention.’ I hope you will continue for many years to devote your productive and keen mind to our field.”

A week after the symposium, Kritz left the U.S. to spend a month at Chalmers University in Gothenburg Sweden, where he is working with leading fusion scientists, including a former student, to carry out fusion research.

His eight grandchildren may well enjoy the fruits of his research, but he will probably not, he says without regret.

“Even if you know you won’t see the completion of your work,” he says, “you don’t desist from the work either. You do the work because it should be done.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Wednesday, September 21, 2005

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