When you think of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, you imagine seeing celebrities like Beyoncé, titans of industry like Elon Musk, and world leaders like Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska gracing the pages. But under the “Innovators” section of the 2023 issue, Traverse City residents might see a familiar face and name—Andrea Kritcher.
Kritcher, who grew up in Traverse City as a Cherryland Electric Cooperative member, is a nuclear engineer and physicist who works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. She also just happens to be a world-class scientist who was the principal designer in a breakthrough experiment that produced fusion ignition in a laboratory for the first time.
Igniting Big Ideas
Scientists fired 192 lasers at a target the size of a pencil eraser in the experiment, achieving “energy breakeven,” which means it produced more energy than was imparted to the target. The first-of-its-kind breakthrough is considered a major step toward a net-zero carbon future.
“Basically, you are creating fusion reactions as you smash hydrogen isotopes together,” said Kritcher. “It’s the same process that powers the sun. So, we’re making mini suns in our lab. Actually, we reach conditions hotter than the sun.”
You read that right—hotter than the sun. The implications of this discovery are massive and will likely result in many applications. Kritcher says that pilot plants for fusion energy are approximately 10–20 years away. Zero-emission energy projects take time to develop, build, and meet rigorous standards, but the end goal is for zero-emission energy plants to not only help alleviate our dependence on carbon-based energy sources, but to take us closer to a carbon-free power grid. As someone who grew up in Traverse City and enjoyed nature deeply, this is an important prospect for Kritcher.
“I loved growing up in Traverse City and I got a lot of support from my family along the way,” said Kritcher. “It was a really great place to grow up and enjoy being outside and on the lake. It’s pretty idyllic.”
Small Town to Big Time
This small-town math and science student likely couldn’t have imagined that a career in physics would have led to so much time talking to the press.
Of course, that all changed with her December 2022 fusion experiment. Kritcher was suddenly getting calls for all sorts of interviews. When someone from the lab’s public relations department asked if she could do an interview with Time Magazine, Kritcher wasn’t fazed.
“We were just talking when he asked me to hold for a second. He asked me if I knew they were considering me for the award,” Kritcher said. “Then he said, ‘We just got word—you’re one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.’ It was so surreal. Can you really be prepared to hear something like that?”
Influencing the Future
Kritcher understands that this success for her is really about the decades of passionate research from hundreds of scientists, engineers, and technicians that made the fusion breakthrough possible. Her hard work reflects that reverence, and she’s proud to be a woman in a field that is still dominated by men.
“Women are still underrepresented in physics, but I belong in this field as much as anyone,” said Kritcher. “Physics doesn’t have a gender. It just asks you to follow your curiosity and solve the problems most interesting to you.”
That sounds like a pretty good plug for future generations of scientists who will continue in her innovative footsteps.