Keith Matzen wins nuclear fusion award

By Neal Singer

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Keith Matzen at the Z facility
Z SHOT — Sandia Fellow Keith Matzen takes a moment to survey the Z facility he helped create. He has been awarded the 2019 Distinguished Career Award by Fusion Power Associates for his achievements in nuclear fusion.

Sandia Fellow Keith Matzen has received the 2019 Distinguished Career Award from Fusion Power Associates, a national nonprofit research and education foundation, for his many contributions to the Labs’ development of nuclear fusion.

The foundation annually brings together senior U.S. and international fusion experts to review the status of fusion research and consider ways to move forward. Its goal is to provide timely information on the status of fusion development and other applications of plasma science. Keith was honored at the annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in December.

“For many years at Los Alamos, I knew the name Keith Matzen as being synonymous with pulsed power ICF (inertial confinement fusion). This honor is well deserved, given Keith’s many years of contribution to both ICF and to Sandia,” said Sandia Associate Labs Director and Chief Research Officer Susan Seestrom.

Inertial confinement fusion creates energy by rapidly heating and compressing a fuel target, typically in the form of a pellet that most often contains a mixture of deuterium and tritium.

Leading the way at Z

Among Keith’s many achievements was his proposal and subsequent leadership in the mid-1990s to convert the Sandia particle-beam fusion accelerator known as PBFA-II to the pulsed-power machine now referred to worldwide as Z. Less than two months after the completed conversion in 1996, Z — which makes use of a powerful magnetic field that accompanies its large electrical current — established world record levels of X-ray energy and power during its nanoseconds-long implosions, called Z-pinches (“Z” because the implosion occurs along the length of a cylinder, which is the Z-axis).

Z experiments have provided insights into the properties of materials at extreme temperature and pressure conditions, the effects of intense radiation on materials and thermonuclear fusion in both national security applications and in astrophysics and planetary science. Z’s efficient delivery of energy to fusion targets has made the method called “pulsed-power, magnetic direct drive” a strong candidate for ultimately achieving high-yield fusion in the laboratory, a goal of scientists worldwide.

While a manager at Z, Keith recruited and mentored scientists and encouraged them to innovate and take technical risks, which proved effective in stimulating new ideas. More than 90% of the experiments conducted on Z today were not envisioned when PBFA II was converted to Z.

As director of Sandia’s pulsed-power sciences, Keith oversaw the refurbishment of Z, a $90 million project completed in 2007 on time and on budget.

Keith grew up in Nebraska and earned a doctorate in molecular kinetic theory from Iowa State University. He was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1997. In 2011, he was presented with the Fusion Power Associates Leadership Award.

Keith was appointed Sandia Fellow in 2018. Only 15 Sandians have achieved that rank in the 70-year history of the Labs.