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Howard Wilson: Piloting the future of fusion at ORNL

Howard Wilson
Howard Wilson explores how to accelerate the delivery of fusion energy as Fusion Pilot Plant R&D lead at ORNL. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

If you ask Howard Wilson what first led him to study fusion energy almost 40 years ago, it was the opportunity to realize an almost impossible dream for the good of society.

“I think it’s the audacious challenge that drew me, basically seeking to reproduce here on Earth the conditions that exist in the sun and in stars,” he said. “It seems like an impossible ask, but the prospect of effectively limitless, secure, safe, sustainable fusion energy – the process that powers the stars – is a great motivator. Huge scientific breakthroughs have recently been made by the international fusion community, driving us ever closer to the dream of delivering fusion power.”

Today, Wilson continues to explore how to accelerate the delivery of fusion energy, bringing scientific discovery and technical innovation together at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As Fusion Pilot Plant R&D lead in the Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate, he is tasked with identifying optimized research pathways towards pilot plant concepts and seeking partnerships with private industry and universities to inform the direction of fusion energy research at ORNL.

“Working with experts across multiple research disciplines to pioneer the new technologies required to maintain the conditions for fusion energy on Earth is intrinsically exciting,” he said. “Now take that a step further to deliver a sustainable, secure energy supply with no carbon emissions, and one sees why a career in fusion energy is so rewarding.”

Finding fusion energy.

Wilson first became interested in fusion energy science through his final year undergraduate project at Durham University in the U.K., and then again at the University of Cambridge while exploring career options after receiving his doctorate in theoretical particle physics.

“While particle physics is a fascinating field, it felt a rather academic discipline at that time,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get involved in research where the science is fundamental and rigorous, but also has societal applications, and fusion energy very much ticks those boxes.”

In 1988, Wilson joined the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority at its site in Culham, working as a theoretical plasma physicist on the national fusion program. His research focused on understanding the mechanisms that drive turbulence and violent instabilities within a fusion plasma. Plasma turbulence results in a rapid loss of heat from the core plasma, requiring more power to reach fusion conditions, while the instabilities, called edge localized modes or ELMs, act like solar flares, ejecting large plasma filaments of heat and particles that can damage the walls of a fusion device. Learning how to control or avoid these ELMs remains a strong interest of Wilson’s, employing fundamental plasma physics research to have a direct impact on the design of future fusion pilot plants.

“If we can learn how to quench plasma turbulence, that will likely provide an accelerated pathway to fusion energy commercialization, and if we can control or avoid the ELMs, that will extend fusion pilot plant lifetimes,” he said.

Wilson worked at Culham until 2005, when he was appointed professor of plasma physics at the University of York to embed fusion energy research and education within the U.K. academic community. In 2011, Wilson led the establishment of the York Plasma Institute, which brings together research in fusion plasmas, low-temperature plasmas for technological applications and high-energy density plasmas produced by high-power lasers. He served as its first director until 2019, during which time he led the development of the Fusion Centre for Doctoral Training, working in partnership with four other U.K. universities and national labs to grow a doctoral training program in fusion energy, focusing on plasma physics and materials science.

In 2017, Wilson served as research program director for the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority’s national fusion program, which spanned fusion plasmas, materials and technology. While there, he played a leading role in developing the proposal for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production program with the goal of delivering net fusion power to the grid in the 2040s. He served as interim STEP director for just over a year, growing a strong national program that integrated universities and industry to build the skills and supply chain alongside addressing the technical challenges.  Wilson then returned to his academic career at York in 2020 before joining ORNL in mid-2023. 

Bringing ORNL’s strengths to the fusion world. 

In his new role, Wilson is adapting his experience from the U.K. and European fusion communities to help position ORNL in the final push toward fusion power delivery.

“Oak Ridge has a unique breadth of fusion-relevant expertise that spans materials, plasmas, isotopes, advanced manufacturing and exascale computing, and the ability to perform high-impact research at facilities like HFIR, Frontier, the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and soon the Materials-Plasma Exposure Experiment, or MPEX,” Wilson said. 

“The people and these facilities make Oak Ridge an enormous national fusion asset and it must play a pivotal role, along with industry, academia and other national lab partners, if the U.S. is going to realize its decadal vision of delivering fusion power.”

The U.S. fusion landscape is evolving rapidly, with private industry taking the lead in the international race for early delivery of the world’s first fusion pilot plants, Wilson said. For the public fusion program to establish an influential position in the race, institutions like ORNL must create a unifying cross-disciplinary framework that combines individual strengths into a coherent program. Wilson envisions a fusion hub that draws on the fundamental science and technology strengths of individual directorates, integrating their expertise to drive translational research with a focus on accelerating fusion delivery.

“This is a multi-disciplinary research endeavor that must bring together physics, chemistry, computing, materials and engineering disciplines to provide optimized designs for fusion plant components,” Wilson said. “ORNL is one of few organizations worldwide with the required breadth of capability to provide integrated solutions for fusion pilot plant designs, but partnerships and collaborations, both national and international, will still be crucial.” 

This emphasis on partnerships and acceleration is core to the central philosophy of the proposed research hub. Academic partnerships will allow access to a wide range of technical expertise and seed the future fusion workforce, while partnerships with industry bring complementary approaches to problem-solving and will keep the research direction dedicated toward the early realization of fusion power. The focus on acceleration will also open a whole new research field with wide-reaching applications.

“The challenge is developing and testing fusion prototype components in a representative environment. This ideally requires an integrated fusion technology test facility, but we don’t yet have one,” Wilson said. “This then raises a key research question for early delivery of fusion power: How do we mitigate the enhanced technical risk that is inherent in going fast?”

One compelling solution builds on the idea of the digital twin, which would combine knowledge from experiments in the real and virtual worlds to create an advanced engineering simulation, coupled with a number of physical testbeds that together would replicate the various subsystems integrated within a fusion pilot plant.

“The optimal pathway to the accelerated delivery of fusion power waits to be discovered,” Wilson said, “but our combined strengths in computer science, advanced simulation, material science, plasma physics, advanced manufacturing and fusion technologies, together with our partners in industry, national labs and universities, position us to find that path and lead the way along it.”

Delivering fusion will also need dramatic growth in the workforce. Many of the people who will be operating the fusion pilot plants of the 2040s are college-aged or younger today and will need to be educated in fusion now to bring them into the field when these designs come to fruition.

“We have an exciting opportunity to shape what that future workforce will look like and make sure all of our school children can access fusion energy as an exciting career option, no matter their background,” Wilson said.

Just as fusion brings together diverse scientific disciplines, Wilson added, it must also bring together a diverse, inclusive workforce supporting people from all backgrounds. It’s not just plasma physicists, technologists, engineers and materials scientists who will be needed to deliver a fusion pilot plant, but also an established network of finance experts, project managers, regulatory bodies, communicators and skilled tradespeople. Bringing these skills to fusion requires an inclusive approach, embracing diversity to deliver on people’s ambitions, no matter their background or career path.

"Fusion does not come easy, and developing fusion will require sustained effort and substantial resources, but with success will come great rewards,” Wilson said. “The first to demonstrate commercial fusion energy will be remembered for centuries. It will sit alongside revolutionary achievements such as the first heart transplant or the first moon landing as a great human achievement.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit