Faculty Profile: Francesco Volpe
native of Naples, Italy, Francesco Volpe is somewhat of a Renaissance man. He speaks Italian, German, Spanish and English. He writes poetry, likes to scuba dive, and enjoys photography. He travels frequently and has lived and worked in Italy, Germany, England and the United States.
Volpe also is a plasma physicist who describes himself as an experimentalist with additional interests in theory and modeling. “A good physicist must embrace both aspects,” he says.
After two years as a postdoctoral researcher at General Atomics in San Diego and a short position at the Max Planck Institut für Plasmaphysik (IPP) in Garching, Germany, he joined the department as an assistant professor in March 2009. “I like to define Madison as the city in the world with the most fusion experiments per capita,” he says. “But also, it is the city with the highest number of overdense experiments.”
Either way, it’s good news for Volpe, whose research interests, briefly, include microwaves and magnetohydrodynamic instabilities. He can apply those interests in research of the campus fusion experiments Pegasus, Madison Symmetric Torus (MST), and Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX), as well as at larger tokamaks such as the DIII-D at General Atomics.
Volpe decided to become a physicist after attending a science exhibition, watching a TV documentary and reading about fusion. As an undergraduate, he studied physics in Pisa, Italy, and earned his master’s degree based on research of the Frascati Tokamak Upgrade, located near Rome in the town of Frascati.
For his PhD, he traveled to Germany and studied electron Bernstein waves at IPP Garching. Successful plasma fusion requires a high number of reactants that generate many fusion reactions, and those particles must collide at high energy to fuse. That high energy requirement translates to high temperature. In dense plasmas, or those with a high number of reactants, electron Bernstein waves help researchers measure and monitor the plasma temperature. The hotter the plasma, the more intense the waves, and as part of his research, Volpe mapped various wave frequencies and trajectories to infer the temperature profile of the plasma.
After he earned his PhD, Volpe moved to Culham, England. There, he used simulations to help optimize the microwave launcher that will suppress neoclassical tearing mode instabilities, or NTMs, in the international proof-of-concept reactor ITER. A year later, working on the DIII-D reactor at General Atomics in San Diego, he tested the idea of using pulsed microwaves to suppress rotating NTMs. He also carried out experiments to study how to apply an external magnetic field that can rotate a “locked” NTM—which has stopped rotating—into view of the microwave pulses. And, briefly back in Germany, he conducted rapid real-time predictions of microwave trajectories relevant to NTM stabilization.
Now at UW-Madison, his research program combines all of his previous experiences and interests. He is planning to conduct absorption experiments with Pegasus, in which he will inject Bernstein waves that may help to form the plasma and heat it, as well as sustain or modify its current. He is interested in collaborating with colleagues in electrical and computer engineering (HSX) and physics (MST) on experiments using electron Bernstein waves for emission, absorption and driving current. He also hopes to develop diagnostics he can install on larger tokamaks, such as the DIII-D, that enable him to study the plasma.
Volpe also will pursue other ideas, including liquid walls in plasma confinement devices and using plasmas for microwave switching or optoelectronics applications, that have interested him for some time. “I have broad interests, which is one of the reasons I like this environment, because these broad interests are encouraged,” he says. “I feel like instead of following a route which has been initiated by someone else, we can also initiate new routes.”