Dennis Whyte, who spearheaded the development of the world’s most powerful fusion electromagnet and grew the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s research volume by more than 50 percent, has announced he will be stepping down as the center’s director at the end of the year in order to devote his full attention to teaching, engaging in cutting-edge fusion research, and pursuing entrepreneurial activities at the PSFC.
“The reason I came to MIT as a faculty member in ’06 was because of the PSFC and the very special place it held and still holds in fusion,” says Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. When he was appointed director of the PSFC in 2015, Whyte saw it as an opportunity to realize even more of the PSFC’s potential: “After 10 years I think we’ve seen that dream come to life. Research and entrepreneurship are stronger than ever.”
Whyte’s passion has always been for fusion — the process by which light elements combine to form heavier ones, releasing massive amounts of energy. One hundred years ago fusion was solely the provenance of astronomers’ speculation; through the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers, fusion now holds the potential to offer humanity an entirely new source of clean, abundant energy — and Whyte has been at the forefront of that effort.
“Fusion’s challenges require interdisciplinary work, so it’s always fresh, and you get these unexpected intersections that can have wild outcomes. As an inherently curious person, fusion is perfect for me.”
Whyte’s enthusiasm is legendary, especially when it comes to teaching. The effects of that enthusiasm are easy to see: At the start of his tenure, only a handful of students chose to pursue plasma physics and fusion science. Since then, the number of students has ballooned, and this year nearly 100 students from six departments are working with 15 faculty members.
Of the growth, Whyte says, “It’s not just that we have more students; it’s that they’re working on more diverse topics, and their passion to make fusion a reality is the best part of the PSFC. Seeing full seminars and classes is fundamentally why I’m here.”
Even as he managed the directorship and pursued his own scholarly work, Whyte remained active in the classroom and continued advising students. Zach Hartwig, a former student who is now a PSFC researcher and MIT faculty member himself, recalled his first meeting with Whyte as an incoming PhD student: “I had to choose between several projects and advisors and meeting Dennis made my decision easy. He catapulted out of his chair and started sketching his vision for a new fusion diagnostic that many people thought was crazy. His passion and eagerness to tackle only the most difficult problems in the field was immediately tangible.”
For the past 13 years Whyte has offered a fusion technology design class that has generated several key breakthroughs, including liquid immersion blankets essential for converting fusion energy to heat, inside launch radio frequency systems used to stabilize fusing plasmas, and high-temperature superconducting electromagnets that have opened the door to the possibility of fusion devices that are not only smaller, but also more powerful and efficient.
In fact, the potential of these electromagnets was significant enough that Whyte, an MIT postdoc, and three of Whyte’s former students (Hartwig among them) spun out a private fusion company to fully realize the magnets’ capabilities. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) both launched and signed a cooperative research agreement with the PSFC in 2018, and the founders’ vision parlayed into significant external investment, allowing a coalition of CFS and PSFC researchers to refine and develop the electromagnets first conceived in Whyte’s class.
Three years later, after a historic day of testing, the magnet produced a field strength of 20 tesla, making it the most powerful fusion superconducting electromagnet in the world. According to Whyte, “The success of the TFMC magnet is an encapsulation of everything PSFC. It would’ve been impossible for a single investigator, or a lone spin-out, but we brought together all these disciplines in a team that could execute innovatively and incredibly quickly. We shortened the timescale not just for this project, but for fusion as a whole.”
CFS remains an important collaborator, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the PSFC’s current research portfolio. While Whyte has no financial stake in the company, he remains a principal investigator on CFS’s SPARC project, a proof-of-concept fusion device predicted to produce more energy than it consumes, ready in 2025. SPARC is the lead-up to ARC, CFS’s commercially scalable fusion power plant planned to arrive in the early 2030s.
The collaboration between CFS and MIT followed a blueprint that had been piloted more than a decade prior, when the Italian energy company Eni S.p.A signed on as a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative to develop low-carbon technologies. After many years of successfully working in tandem with MITEI to advance renewable energy research, in 2018 Eni made a significant investment in a young CFS to assist in realizing commercial fusion power, which in turn indirectly funded PSFC research; Eni also collaborated directly with the PSFC to create the Laboratory for Innovative Fusion Technologies, which remains active.
Whyte believes that “thoughtful and meaningful collaboration with the energy industry can make a difference with research and climate change. Industry engagement is very relevant — it changed both of us. Now Eni has fusion in their portfolio.” The arrangement is a demonstration of how public-private collaborations can accelerate the progress of fusion science, and ultimately the arrival of fusion power.
Whyte’s move to diversify collaborators, leverage the PSFC’s strength as a multidisciplinary hub, and expand research volume was essential to the center’s survival and growth. Early in his tenure, a shift in funding priorities necessitated the shutdown of Alcator C-Mod, the fusion research device in operation at the PSFC for 23 years — though not before C-Mod set the world record for plasma pressure on its last day of operation. Through this transition, Whyte and the members of his leadership team were able to keep the PSFC whole.
One alumnus was a particular source of inspiration to Whyte during that time: “Reinier [Beeuwkes] said to me, ‘what you’re doing doesn’t just matter to students and MIT, it matters to the world.’ That was so meaningful, and his words really sustained me when I was feeling major doubt.” In 2022 Beeuwkes won the MIT Alumni Better World Service Award for his support of fusion and the PSFC. Since 2018, sponsored research at the PSFC has more than doubled, as have the number of personnel.
Whyte’s determination to build and maintain a strong community is a prevailing feature of his leadership. Matt Fulton, who started at the PSFC in 1987 and is now director of operations, says of Whyte, “You want a leader like Dennis on your worst days. We were staring down disaster and he had a plan to hold the PSFC together, and somehow it worked. The research was important, but the people have always been more important to him. We’re so lucky to have him.”
The Office of the Vice President for Research is launching a search for the PSFC’s next leader. Should the search extend beyond the end of the year, an interim director will be appointed.
“As MIT works to magnify its impact in the areas of climate and sustainability, Dennis has built the PSFC into an extraordinary resource for the Institute to draw upon,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “His leadership has positioned MIT on the leading edge of fusion research and the emerging commercial fusion industry, and while the nature of his contributions will change, … the value he brings to the MIT community will remain clear. As Dennis steps down as director, the PSFC is ascendant.” More