2008 Payne-Gaposchkin medal and prize

Dr John William Connor

UKAEA Fusion, Culham Science Centre

For his seminal theoretical contributions to magnetically-confined fusion energy research.

The Payne-Gaposchkin medal and prize for distinguished research in plasma, solar or space physics has been awarded to Dr John William Connor, Head of the Theory and Modelling Department at the Culham Science Centre in Abingdon, for his seminal theoretical contributions to magnetically-confined fusion energy research.

Dr Connor is one of the world’s leading and most influential plasma theorists. His work, based on a powerful combination of mathematics and physical insight, has been of crucial significance in the progress of nuclear fusion as a future viable energy source.

One of the main routes to achieving fusion requires confining and controlling a plasma of hydrogen isotopes within a magnetic toroidal chamber called a tokamak. Magnetic confinement can be achieved by driving a current through the plasma - not easy to maintain over long periods. In the early 1970s, Connor and colleagues showed that, at high enough pressures, the plasma produced it own current - the bootstrap current - that could last indefinitely. This breakthrough discovery is now the basis of all modern tokamak reactor designs, including the prospective international fusion experiment, ITER.

Connor went on to make many major contributions to the understanding of the plasma physics, for example, the dangerous large-scale instabilities such as ballooning and tearing modes. These determine the maximum plasma pressure that can be contained in the vessel. Such events could be damaging in future, larger tokamaks such as ITER. He also modelled fine scale plasma turbulence effects which cause heat loss and affect performance - ingeniously reducing the analysis to a simple mathematical form and fully exploiting the power of dimensional analysis.

Dr Connor has led the theory effort within the UK fusion research programme for nearly two decades. During this time, he sustained the group, attracting and educating an impressive new generation of theorists.