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The College of Engineering remembers Fred Ribe, Professor Emeritus and pioneer in nuclear fusion


September 25, 2019

Fred Ribe

Fred Ribe in his nuclear engineering lab at the UW.

Dr. Fred Ribe, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and a leading pioneer in U.S. fusion energy research, died on June 19, 2019 in Santa Fe, New Mexico at age 94. 

Ribe was a professor of nuclear engineering at the UW from 1977 to 1989. The Nuclear Engineering Department, in operation from 1965 through 1992, grew out of the departments of electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and aeronautics and astronautics.  

Ribe taught nuclear physics, experimental design and diagnostics, and plasma physics, and mentored successful Ph.D. students and post-doctoral research associates. At the UW, he continued his stellarator-relevant theta pinch research. He held a guest professor appointment at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne.

A&A professor Tom Jarboe fondly remembers Ribe recruiting him from Los Alamos to pursue an opportunity to advance his spheromak research. Jarboe remembers that he was a wonderful professor who prepared his students well to make contributions in fusion research.

He underscored Ribe's contribution to fusion milestones: "Fred's theta pinch was the first experiment to make thermonuclear neutrons. This helped fusion research get an infusion of funding." 

Ribe was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His awards included Outstanding Achievement from the American Nuclear Society, Distinguished Career and Lifetime Achievement from Fusion Power Associates, and Distinguished Graduate of the University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering.

He earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas in 1944 and served during the war in U.S. Navy signal intelligence rising to the rank of lieutenant junior grade. After the war, he helped start up Engineering Research Associates. He then earned an M.S. (1950) and Ph.D. (1951) in physics under Samuel Allison and Gerhardt Groetzinger at the University of Chicago, co-authoring journal articles on particle scattering cross sections.

Ribe worked at Los Alamos from 1951 to 1977 rising to group leader and division leader, co-authoring more than 60 papers and many technical reports, notably two reviews of fusion research authored with Richard Post in 1974 and 1975. His career there began in nuclear reactions, fast neutrons, atomic collisions and high-energy accelerator research. In 1952, at Eniwetok Atoll, he helped monitor the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb.

In 1956 he began research in controlled thermonuclear fusion for generating electricity as a member of Project Sherwood and the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Division. He contributed to a series of experiments investigating the behavior of linear and toroidal pinches seeking to achieve plasma compression and confinement. These included the first controlled laboratory thermonuclear plasma in 1958, with Jim Tuck as group leader. Ribe then focused on pulsed-power Z- and theta-pinches. These included the Scylla 4P in 1973 which, with Ribe as group leader, demonstrated that a pulsed-power-induced plasma could be held a sufficient distance inside the outer solid-material chamber wall to reach and sustain high temperature and high pressure.

As founding leader of the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Division, Ribe encouraged and stimulated a wide range of exciting and innovative experimental and theoretical work including plasma guns, basic plasma experiments, large-scale plasma numerical computation, and field reversed, fast liner and spheromak fusion reactor configurations. These efforts produced knowledge that contributes to current fusion research. He led more than 130 staff in completion of the large Scyllac high beta stellarator full torus test reactor from 1974 to 1977. This experiment was never fully carried out.

While at Los Alamos, Ribe was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship to perform research at the Max Planck Institute in Munich; was a visiting professor at the University of Iowa; and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. He led a petition drive in 1954 in support of reinstated security status for J. Robert Oppenheimer that garnered many signatories within the lab.

Ribe was editor-in-chief of the plasma physics component of Physics of Fluids from 1982 to 1988 and then of the successor stand-alone journal Physics of Fluids B (now Physics of Plasmas) until 1990. He was chairman of the prominent U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) Magnetic Fusion Advisory Committee from 1984 to 1988 that periodically assessed the status of fusion science to formally recommend future research projects and funding. He served on other advisory boards to the USDOE and APS and was known for his initiatives to foster discussions and presentations on fusion technology.

Ribe's legacy at the UW includes the many Ph.D. students and post-docs he taught and mentored who advanced to make their own contributions in the field of plasmas, including:

Ph.D. students:

  • Hermann Meuth, Professor, Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Germany
  • Evelio Sevillano, Director, Lam Research
  • Eric Hedin, Chair, Department of Chemistry, Physics and Engineering; Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Biola University
  • Charles (Chuck) Greenfield, Assistant Director, DIII-D National Fusion Program at General Atomics
  • Miodrag Cekic, Research Scientist & IP Manager, Sigma Space
  • Greg Spanjers, Chief Scientist, Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Directorate, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Post Docs:

  • Stephen Knox, Scientist, LANL
  • Mark Koepke, Robert C. Byrd Professor of Physics, WVU
  • Brian A. Nelson, Research Professor UW (Retired); CTO, Zap Energy Inc.
  • Milton E. Kayama, Professor UNESP - Universidade Estadual Paulista, São José dos Campos, São Paulo, Brazil

Ribe lived a full life of family and friends, singing in choruses and light operas, a cabin in the mountains and another on a beach, wide ranging travels and many diverse outdoor recreation pursuits. He is preceded in death by his first wife and a son and is survived by his second wife Margorie Christensen Ribe, three sons, three daughters in law, four grand children and one great granddaughter.

Prepared by Dr. Robert Ribe, Professor, University of Oregon, and Dr. Mark Koepke, Professor, West Virginia University, and Amy Sprague, Project Manager, William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics.