Nuno Loureiro Named Director of MIT PSFC

May 5, 2024

Nuno Loureiro, professor of nuclear science and engineering and of physics, has been appointed the new director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), effective May 1.

Loureiro is taking the helm of one of MIT's largest labs: more than 250 full-time researchers, staff members, and students work and study in seven buildings with 250,000 square feet of lab space. A theoretical physicist and fusion scientist, Loureiro joined MIT as a faculty member in 2016, and was appointed deputy director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) in 2022. Loureiro succeeds Dennis Whyte, who stepped down at the end of 2023 to return to teaching and research.

Stepping into his new role as director, Loureiro says, "The PSFC has an impressive tradition of discovery and leadership in plasma and fusion science and engineering. Becoming director of the PSFC is an incredible opportunity to shape the future of these fields. We have a world-class team, and it's an honor to be chosen as its leader."

Loureiro's own research ranges widely. He is recognized for advancing the understanding of multiple aspects of plasma behavior, particularly turbulence and the physics underpinning solar flares and other astronomical phenomena. In the fusion domain, his work enables the design of fusion devices that can more efficiently control and harness the energy of fusing plasmas, bringing the dream of clean, near-limitless fusion power that much closer.

Plasma physics is foundational to advancing fusion science, a fact Loureiro has embraced and that is relevant as he considers the direction of the PSFC's multidisciplinary research. "But plasma physics is only one aspect of our focus. Building a scientific agenda that continues and expands on the PSFC's history of innovation in all aspects of fusion science and engineering is vital, and a key facet of that work is facilitating our researchers' efforts to produce the breakthroughs that are necessary for the realization of fusion energy."

As the climate crisis accelerates, fusion power continues to grow in appeal: It produces no carbon emissions, its fuel is plentiful, and dangerous "meltdowns" are impossible. The sooner that fusion power is commercially available, the greater impact it can have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting global climate goals. While technical challenges remain, "the PSFC is well poised to meet them, and continue to show leadership. We are a mission-driven lab, and our students and staff are incredibly motivated," Loureiro comments.

"As MIT continues to lead the way toward the delivery of clean fusion power onto the grid, I have no doubt that Nuno is the right person to step into this key position at this critical time," says Maria T. Zuber, MIT's presidential advisor for science and technology policy. "I look forward to the steady advance of plasma physics and fusion science at MIT under Nuno's leadership."

Over the last decade, there have been massive leaps forward in the field of fusion energy, driven in part by innovations like high-temperature superconducting magnets developed at the PSFC. Further progress is guaranteed: Loureiro believes that "The next few years are certain to be an exciting time for us, and for fusion as a whole. It's the dawn of a new era with burning plasma experiments" - a reference to the collaboration between the PSFC and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup company spun out of the PSFC, to build SPARC, a fusion device that is slated to turn on in 2026 and produce a burning plasma that yields more energy than it consumes. "It's going to be a watershed moment," says Loureiro.

He continues, "In addition, we have strong connections to inertial confinement fusion experiments, including those at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and we're looking forward to expanding our research into stellarators, which are another kind of magnetic fusion device." Over recent years, the PSFC has significantly increased its collaboration with industrial partners such Eni, IBM, and others. Loureiro sees great value in this: "These collaborations are mutually beneficial: they allow us to grow our research portfolio while advancing companies' R&D efforts. It's very dynamic and exciting."

Loureiro's directorship begins as the PSFC is launching key tech development projects like LIBRA, a "blanket" of molten salt that can be wrapped around fusion vessels and perform double duty as a neutron energy absorber and a breeder for tritium (the fuel for fusion). Researchers at the PSFC have also developed a way to rapidly test the durability of materials being considered for use in a fusion power plant environment, and are now creating an experiment that will utilize a powerful particle accelerator called a gyrotron to irradiate candidate materials.

Interest in fusion is at an all-time high; the demand for researchers and engineers, particularly in the nascent commercial fusion industry, is reflected by the record number of graduate students that are studying at the PSFC - more than 90 across seven affiliated MIT departments. The PSFC's classrooms are full, and Loureiro notes a palpable sense of excitement. "Students are our greatest strength," says Loureiro. "They come here to do world-class research but also to grow as individuals, and I want to give them a great place to do that. Supporting those experiences, making sure they can be as successful as possible is one of my top priorities." Loureiro plans to continue teaching and advising students after his appointment begins.

MIT President Sally Kornbluth's recently announced Climate Project is a clarion call for Loureiro: "It's not hyperbole to say MIT is where you go to find solutions to humanity's biggest problems," he says. "Fusion is a hard problem, but it can be solved with resolve and ingenuity - characteristics that define MIT. Fusion energy will change the course of human history. It's both humbling and exciting to be leading a research center that will play a key role in enabling that change."