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Harold P. Furth

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Biography

Born: January 13, 1930

Died: February 21, 2002

At the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Harold P. Furth led efforts to harness thermonuclear fusion for the generation of electricity, proposing, designing and supervising the construction of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor in the 1980s.

Furth was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1930, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1941. Furth finished at the top of his high school class and entered Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D in physics in 1960 for his studies of cosmic rays in photographic emulsions permeated by high magnetic fields.

He then began work at the University of California Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), where he collaborated with Stirling Colgate in his first experiments on plasma confinement devices.

They sought to use magnetic fields to contain hydrogen plasma: extremely hot matter produced when electrons break away from atomic nuclei. Furth and his colleagues theorized that small electrical resistance in the plasma caused it to fall apart. They built devices to address this problem. Initially, they attempted to build a model with a linear pitch that they hoped could serve as a fusion reactor, but its instability led them to replace it with a large conducting ring, called the levitron, to contain the plasma.

He joined the Plasma Physics Laboratory in 1967 and also served as a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton. At Princeton, he proposed building a fusion test reactor, or tokamak, in 1973 that proved a milestone in the history of fusion technology. This device answered both to Soviet advances in tokamak technology and to the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Furth directed the Plasma Physics Laboratory between 1981 and 1990. In the early 1990s, the tokamak produced ten megawatts of fusion power for one second, demonstrating for the first time the functional possibilities of magnetic fusion.

Among many honors, Furth was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He secured more than twenty patents, primarily in the field of magnetic fusion technology, and published over 200 technical papers.

Further Reading

T. Kenneth Fowler, "Biographical Memoirs: Harold P. Furth," National Academies Press.

Kenneth Chang, "Harold P. Furth, 72, Dies; Led Fusion Experiments," NY Times, February 22, 2002.