SEAS Students Build Controller for Plasma Control Experiment

How do you control Columbia University’s high-temperature plasma control experiment? Very carefully, safely, and easily using a new real-time digital process controller built by two SEAS students.

SEAS undergraduate students Edwin Vargas (SEAS APAM Class of 2017) and Steve Jaycox (SEAS EE Class of 2016) have completed the design, construction, programming, and testing of a new digital process controller for Columbia’s High Beta Tokamak Experiment - Extended Pulse (HBT-EP). The new controller will give HBT-EP student and faculty researchers a modern and easy-to-program system for managing and scheduling critical high-voltage, vacuum, and safety systems for the tokamak experiment. Custom designed and built using parts from Georgia-based company AutomationDirect, the new process controller continually monitors 30 safety interlocks and up to eight high-voltage energy systems needed to operate the tokamak device. Edwin Vargas and Steve Jaycox built the system to be easy to use and easy for student-scientists to update and modify how the experiment operates and the scientific parameters under study.

Columbia’s High Beta Tokamak Experiment - Extended Pulse (HBT-EP) is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy  and seeks to understand the motion of ionized gas, called “plasma”, that is heated to more than 10 million degrees and confined by very strong electromagnets. Using HBT-EP students and scientists actively control the shape of the plasma’s magnetic boundary using arrays of control coils and electrodes. When these fields and currents are properly applied, instabilities of the plasma boundary are suppressed. Columbia students and scientists have pioneered many of the techniques used to control magnetized plasma instabilities that are now also used in larger national research facilities and may someday influence the safety and performance of the world’s largest fusion energy experiment, ITER, now under construction in France.

The HBT-EP Research program is directed by Professors Gerald Navratil and Mike Mauel and by Dr. Jeff Levesque.

Photo: Edwin Vargas (left) and Steve Jaycox (right) besides the new real-time digital controller for the HBT-EP experiment. Steve Jaycox graduated this past May, majoring in Electrical Engineering. He has been working at the Columbia Plasma Laboratory as a Lab Technician since 2014. In September he will be moving to California, to begin work as a hardware engineer in the Bay Area. Edwin Vargus will be graduating May 2017 in Applied Physics and plans to attend graduate school to further his career in plasma physics.

500 W. 120th St., Mudd 200, MC 4701 New York, NY 10027 / Phone: 212-854-4457 / Fax: 212-854-8257 / Email:

©2012 Columbia University