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UCI clean-energy pioneer Norman Rostoker, 89, dies

 Norman Rostoker
Norman Rostoker, UCI professor emeritus and co-founder of Tri Alpha Energy, died Christmas Day 2014.
(Courtesy UCI., Daily Pilot)
<This post has been corrected, as noted below.>

UC Irvine professor Norman Rostoker, a nuclear fusion pioneer who sought practical applications for clean energy, died on Christmas Day in Irvine. He was 89.

Considered the father of breakthrough nuclear fusion techniques, Rostoker pursued the use of collective “plasma fields” — made up of a gas of charged particles — to accelerate ions during fusion, according to a statement released by UCI. The approach made him unique in his field and produced 27 U.S. patents for which he is named an inventor.

“Rostoker was one of the most important pioneers in the theory and understanding of general plasma physics and controlled thermonuclear fusion,” said Shimon Eckhouse, a former student of Rostoker’s and chairman of the board at the global research and manufacturing company Syneron Medical Ltd., in a statement released by UCI.

“His contribution to kinetic plasma theory created the basis of our understanding of modern plasma physics.”

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Apart from the theoretical, Rostoker saw nuclear fusion’s practical possibilities as a near-limitless energy source. He sought to realize that promise by co-founding Tri Alpha Energy, a Foothill Ranch-based company, with Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg and other partners.

According to Michl Binderbauer, a former student and now chief technology officer at Tri Alpha Energy, Rostoker’s unusual ability to reverse-engineer a problem spurred innovation.

“He also excelled at the ‘never surrender’ notion,” Binderbauer said in the statement. “Without his steadfastness and strength of conviction, our vision would have remained on paper, and we would not have been able to conclusively demonstrate the merits of some of Norman’s groundbreaking ideas in fusion research.”

Born Aug. 16, 1925, in Toronto, Rostoker earned a master’s degree at the University of Toronto and a doctorate in science from the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He worked at various institutions in the 1950s and ‘60s, including UC San Diego and Cornell University, before joining the UCI faculty in 1972.

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The following year, he was named chair of the department of physics and astronomy, a post he held until 1976. Among his many distinctions, he was honored with the American Physical Society’s James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics, the UCI Medal and membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Rostoker’s research started with pure physics, including work in solid-state physics theory known as the KKR (Korringa-Kohn-Rostoker) method, according to the statement. Rostoker’s forte, however, was applying the theory to physics and engineering technology to fusion reactor development.

“He was a tenacious entrepreneur, pushing the envelope of technology frontier in the areas of high-power accelerators and clean fusion energy generation,” Eckhouse said in a statement. “Professor Rostoker was a great teacher and raised generations of graduate students in his field who have continued contributing to the development of science and technology.”

While at UCI, Rostoker pursued a unique approach to fusion based on fundamental new insights quite disparate from others in the field. He conceived of using collective plasma fields to assist in the ion acceleration process — a step that moved the field closer to the realization of plasma-based fusion reactors.

“Professor Norman Rostoker was a creative, brilliant thinker,” noted Kenneth Janda, UCI physical sciences dean and professor. “He has created a legacy that will impact humanity far into the future.”

Rostoker was married for 65 years to Helen Corinne Rostoker, who died earlier in 2014. He is survived by four children, Stephen Rostoker, Ruth Forton, Linda Rostoker and Rachel Uchizono; grandchildren Lisa Servedio, Nolan Uchizono and Kellen Uchizono; and one great-grandchild, Sofia Servedio.

A memorial service is planned for Jan. 24 in Irvine. For more information, go to ps.uci.edu/memorial/rostoker.

[For the record, 10 a.m. Jan. 10: An earlier version of this article stated that a memorial service would be held Jan. 25. A memorial service is planned for Jan. 24 in Irvine.]

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