Physicist Luis Delgado-Aparicio of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has won a highly competitive early career research award sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The five-year grant of about $2.6 million will fund Delgado-Aparicio’s research aimed at eliminating a key barrier to developing fusion power as a safe, clean and abundant source of electric energy.
“It’s a research and development process that will last for five years but it’s a program that will certainly have an impact in our field,” Delgado-Aparicio said of the project.
Fusion occurs when an electrically charged gas called plasma is heated to temperatures hotter than the sun and becomes hot and dense enough to force atomic nuclei to fuse together and create a burst of energy. Delgado-Aparicio’s research focuses on the impurities that migrate from the interior walls and plasma-facing components of a fusion facility — or tokamak — into the plasma. These impurities are tiny particles that can cool the plasma and halt or slow the fusion reaction. Delgado-Aparicio is developing a process to enable researchers to pinpoint and analyze the impurities and quickly flush them out of the plasma.
Ridding plasmas of these impurities is becoming increasingly vital as experiments utilize longer pulses to produce more sustained fusion energy.
“It’s a very important question: What’s going to happen when we try to confine a plasma for several minutes, hours, days or even months?” Delgado-Aparicio said. “We need to create a mechanism to mitigate the presence of these very troublesome impurities or to flush them from the core of the plasma.”
Tackling this problem will be crucial for ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in the south of France, and the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, which is completing a nearly three-year upgrade at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.
Delgado-Aparicio, a resident of Montgomery Township, was one of 44 winners of an early career award nationwide and the third researcher at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab to win the honor in as many years.
It was bittersweet for Delgado-Aparicio when he first received news of the award. He learned of it in April while in the airport on his way to visit his ailing father in Lima, Peru.
“It was difficult to be happy because half my brain was occupied by my dad,” he said.
He phoned his parents about the award and his father, a former Peruvian congressman who was also named Luis Delgado-Aparicio, died half-an hour-later, shortly after his son boarded the airplane to visit him.
“He was an enthusiast of the work I was doing. He was a great supporter in my life. I feel very happy to have had him in my life and I’m sure he was ecstatic to hear about the prize,” he said.
Delgado-Aparicio earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, and a master’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton University in 2001. He earned a second master’s in physics from Johns Hopkins University and received his doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 2007. He joined the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in 2009 and spent three and a half years as a visiting scientist at MIT before returning to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in the summer of 2013.