Growing up in Protvino, Russia, in the 1960s — home to the largest particle accelerator in the world when it launched in 1967 — Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientist Nicolai Martovetsky quickly became fascinated with physics and math.
“Protvino was one of the towns in Russia built for science, and I was kind of a curious kid by nature,” he said. “At parties, when kids were allowed, I’d always be trying to understand what the adults were talking about and many of them were physicists.”
Though Martovetsky loved swimming, bicycling, soccer and basketball, he was most interested in learning about physical matter and the building blocks that made up the world. Soon he was excelling in youth science competitions, where students were challenged to solve a set of chemistry, math and physics problems in a set time period.
So it was no surprise then when the budding scientist became a physicist and engineer. As an undergraduate, Martovetsky studied thermodynamics at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, then went on in 1985 to receive his Ph.D. in physics, after spending seven years conducting research in cryogenics and superconductivity physics at Russia’s Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute.
From the very beginning of his 14-year tenure at Kurchatov, Martovetsky immersed himself in a team dedicated to advancing the tokamak, one of the institute’s signature developments from the 1950s. Tokamaks are reactors that use magnetic fields to induce the fusion of lightweight nuclei (deuterium and tritium) together while immersed in scorching-hot plasma. The process creates a helium nucleus and a neutron, and releases clean, carbon-free energy at the same time. Using a similar mechanism to that which powers the sun and the stars, fusion produces more energy than any chemical reaction (such as the combustion of fossil fuels).
“Fusion has tremendous potential as a sustainable energy source,” Martovetsky said. “If we can demonstrate that fusion can be scaled up, it has the potential to replace all the coal-burning and gas-burning power plants, as well as nuclear fission power plants.”
The world’s largest fusion experiment begins
By 1985, world leaders were indeed ready to launch a scaled-up effort, as tokamaks had become more advanced. That year, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva and, among other world topics, proclaimed the importance of international cooperation on fusion for peaceful purposes. Within a year, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) had been established, a massive project to build the world’s largest tokamak. Martovetsky’s team at Kurchatov signed on right away. Since then, the effort has grown to include more than 30 countries, such as China, India, Japan, Korea and many European Union nations. Each country has taken on a section of the overall project to complete, making it one of the largest collaborative scientific projects in the world.
Today, Martovetsky is still involved in ITER — but now for the United States, which is designing, developing, testing and building the tokamak’s central solenoid. Composed of six superconducting coils stacked on top of each other (and sitting at the very center of the reactor’s donut-shaped chamber), the central solenoid facilitates fusion. The giant coil is pulsed to drive the massive current that heats and squeezes the plasma, which is suspended by additional magnetic field coils that guide the discharge and keep it from touching the chamber walls.
Since 1994 (the same year he joined LLNL), Martovetsky has collaborated with a team of engineers to design and build the central solenoid’s model coil prototype. Now, as chief engineer for the central solenoid effort, he works from an office at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge is leading the U.S. ITER effort), overseeing and evaluating the fabrication and testing efforts of the two dozen U.S. companies responsible for manufacturing and testing the central solenoid’s components.
Key among these companies is General Atomics (GA), a San Diego-based company that also is home to the Department of Energy’s Dlll-D National Fusion Facility. GA will construct and test each of the solenoid’s coils before delivering them to the town of Cadarache in Southern France, where the fusion reactor is being built. Construction has started on the first coil, and it should be ready for testing later this year, Martovetsky said.
Carbon-free power continues to inspire future generations
“Our ultimate goal is developing an unlimited, carbon-free power source for the foreseeable future for mankind,” said Harry McLean, director of LLNL’s Fusion Energy Sciences Program (FESP). His program also has played a large role in advancing fusion technology since the Laboratory was founded in 1952.
FESP’s four dozen scientists are engaged in all aspects of fusion technology, including modeling theory, materials and technology and plasma science. Program scientists also are embedded at General Atomics and Princeton University to study how onsite tokamaks operate under a variety of conditions, and how this translates to ITER and larger machines.
While his vision of a world powered by fusion has yet to be realized, McLean is still excited about its future. “The idea that we could one day harness the underlying fusion physics of the sun — right here on Earth — for clean, inexhaustible power continues to resonate with, and inspire, the next generation,” he said. “For both scientists and society, there is idealism and hope that we can make the world a better place.”
As for Martovetsky, he is propelled by the prospect of building a reactor that demonstrates fusion as a viable energy source. “This is one of the first machines that will produce more energy than it consumes,” he said of the ITER tokamak. “That will be a major milestone for commercial energy by fusion.”