Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducts research in the high-energy-density realm of physics. NIF helps Livermore carry out its stockpile stewardship mission, enabling the Laboratory to ensure the nuclear deterrent’s safety, security, reliability, and effectiveness. Experiments at NIF are also laying the groundwork to advance the nation’s energy security by demonstrating the feasibility of nuclear fusion as a clean source of energy.
Dr. Tammy Ma is a plasma physicist at NIF. She leads experiments aimed at achieving fusion ignition by using NIF’s 192 laser beams to compress fuel capsules containing deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) in a process called inertial confinement fusion (ICF). The goal is to achieve sustained thermonuclear fusion, where the fuel fuses into heavier elements, and many times more energy is released than it took to initiate the reaction. The scientific and engineering challenges are vast, but the potential to produce abundant clean energy, as well as to better understand the physics of a process that powers all the stars in the universe is irresistible.
“What I love about working at Livermore is that we do science with a purpose. Whether it’s national security, or energy research, or climate change, it all has an angle that’s actually achievable and has real significance,” says Ma. “You bring together great people to work on difficult projects…it’s not one single scientist in his or her own little lab that can figure it all out. You need big teams and a lot of resources and you need support from the scientific community and the government, and you get all that here. Hopefully what we do has a positive impact on society and human life.”
Ma earned her bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Caltech in 2005, then received her master's degree in 2008, and Ph.D. in 2010, both from the University of California, San Diego. Ma always knew that LLNL was one of the most exciting places to be—she wanted to work with the biggest, most energetic laser in the world, to help push the frontiers of fusion research.
Following graduate school, she completed a postdoc at LLNL before becoming a staff scientist in 2012. Ma was recently awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on early-career science and engineering professionals. She also received the American Physical Society 2016 Thomas H. Stix Award for Outstanding Early Career Contributions to Plasma Physics Research.