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In Memoriam: Igor Alexeff

Igor AlexeffProfessor Igor Alexeff died at his home in Oak Ridge, TN on Oct. 25, 2012 at the age of 81 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Anne Alexeff, his wife and partner of 58 years, was at his side until the end. He is also survived by his son Alexander, daughter-in-law Monika Dimmel-Alexeff, both of Malibu, CA; daughter, Helen Alexeff, of Knoxville; granddaughters, Zoe, Ivy and Noa Alexeff, of Malibu and Jasmine Alexeff-Little, of Knoxville.

Igor was born in Pittsburgh, PA on January 5, 1931, the son of Alexander Alexeff and Tamara Tchirkow Alexeff. He had a lifelong interest in science and mathematics, and was both an outstanding engineer and a dynamic leader of the plasma science and engineering community. During his career, he worked in many areas of plasma science and engineering. He made the first observation of ion acoustic waves in a plasma (1963) and invented the Orbitron maser, a microwave oscillator in which electrons in orbit around a positively charged wire bunch, via a negative mass instability, and generate radiation at up to 1 THz. More recently, he worked extensively on ball lightning and atmospheric pressure plasma discharges, with applications including plasma stealth antennas and medical sterilization. A recent Web of Science search found 371 citations for I. Alexeff, including more than 140 journal articles, beginning with a 1955 Physical Review paper on “Evapor-Ion Pump Developments.” He was also a prolific inventor, and received more than 20 US patents during his career.

Igor received a BA in Physics with honors from Harvard in 1952, and received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Nuclear Physics in 1959. He also passed the Tennessee State License Exam, and was a registered professional engineer. He worked at the Westinghouse Research Laboratory from 1952 to 1953, where he helped develop the first nuclear submarine. From 1960 to 1970, he worked on controlled thermonuclear fusion at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. From 1971 to 1996, he was a Full Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering of the University of Tennessee, working in industrial plasma engineering. During his career, he also worked overseas for extended periods in Switzerland, Japan, India, South Africa, and Brazil. He was also a founding member of the Tennessee Inventors Association, which was formed in 1983, and its President in 1984, and Secretary-Treasurer of the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics from 1983 to 1984. He retired from teaching in 1996, but retained his office and research laboratory as an emeritus professor, and continued his work until 2011. During this period, he consulted for private industry while licensing some of his inventions.

As a professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the University of Tennessee, Igor was known as an outstanding teacher and mentor. His plasma physics courses were some of the most popular courses in the department and inspired many a student to pursue their research in plasma science and engineering. Students particularly enjoyed watching Igor conducting small but spectacular experiments on top of the classroom desk to illustrate some of the plasma physics principles that he had just taught them. Some of these “shows” included bringing his telescope, when a special astronomical event was taking place, probing the skies, and making a connection between what the students observed and plasma physics concepts. In his research laboratory, Igor was a hands-on supervisor who took part in all t he experiments and enjoyed demonstrating to his graduate students the art and science of conducting scientific experimentation. He always treated the members of his research group as family and often on weekends and holidays invited them to his farm, located in the countryside outside of Knoxville, where they all enjoyed food, games, and good company. Igor was very fond of his farm, where he kept various animals (cows, a pony, cats, and geese). He spent as much time as he could at the farm, where he took care of his animals and enjoyed using his Russian-made tractor to work the land.

Igor had a long relationship with the IEEE and the NPSS. He was a member of the “Organizing Group of Petitioners for a Plasma Group” whose petition was submitted to the AdCom of the IEEE Nuclear Science Group at a meeting on March 2, 1972. That meeting approved the submission of a petition to the IEEE to form the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society from the Nuclear Science Group and the Plasma Organizing Group, with a new Plasma and Fusion Science technical committee formed and headed by Leon Shohet. Igor was present as a representative of the Plasma Sciences and Applications technical committee at the first meeting of the AdCom of the newly formed Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society on December 5, 1972 at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach. At this meeting, “I. Alexeff indicated that the Plasma Sciences Technical Committee planned to establish their 1st Plasma Sciences International Conference in May or June 1973 at the University of Tennessee. This would be a three-day meeting which would draw on ORNL for help. They expect – 200 attendees and plan a registration fee of $25 for members, $30 for non-members. They plan on publishing abstracts in any case and, depending on response, may publish complete papers as an issue of the Transactions on Plasma Sciences. They would desire that the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society cover any deficit which may be incurred by this meeting.” The first International Conference on Plasma Science (ICOPS) was actually held in May 1974 in Knoxville, TN. Igor chaired the conference, and at the May 16, 1974 AdCom meeting, “I. Alexeff reported that the conference was quite successful with about 140 to 150 persons registered and 130 papers submitted. They expect to break even financially.” This year’s ICOPS, joint with the Pulsed Power Conference, will be the 40th in the successful series that he began.

Igor was President of the NPSS from 1999 to 2000, Vice-President on two occasions (1983 and 1998), and an elected member of AdCom from 1980–1983 and 1996–1999. He also chaired a number of AdCom committees, including Awards, Chapters and Local Activities, Nominating, and Fellow Candidate Evaluation. In addition, he was an elected member of the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the NPSS Plasma Science and Applications Committee on a number of occasions from the early 1970s through the early 1990s, Secretary from 1979–1981, Vice-Chair in 1978 and 1989, and Chair of ExCom from 1983 to 1984. He remained involved with PSAC activities till his death, and was a frequent guest at ExCom meetings and receptions. As noted above, he was the General Chair of the first IEEE International Conference on Plasma Science, which was held in Knoxville, TN in 1974. He was also a member of the IEEE Fellow Committee from 1983 through 1986, and, following his term, frequently assisted other NPSS members by reading and critiquing their fellow nominations. Along with Victor Granatstein, he organized a minicourse on “Generation of High-Power Microwaves, Millimeter-Waves, and Submillimeter-Waves” at the 1986 ICOPS in Saskatoon, Canada, and they together edited a subsequent book “High Power Microwave Sources” that was published by Artech House in 1987. From 2008 until his death, he was also an NPSS Distinguished Lecturer. He gave lectures on topics such as nuclear fusion and ball lightning to many different audiences on behalf of the NPSS, including four lectures during two trips to Kharkiv in the Ukraine in the winters of 2010 and 2011 to visit the Institute of Radiophysics and Electronics of National Academy of Science of Ukraine as well as the NPSS East Ukraine Joint Chapter. A collaboration that resulted from his visit to Kharkiv resulted in what may be his last technical paper, “Negative Mass Instability in Low Voltage Cyclotron Resonance Maser,” by I. Alexeff et al., which was published in the proceedings of the 2012 International Conference on Mathematical Methods in Electromagnetic Theory. Igor presented his final two Distinguished Lectures on “The Van Allen Hypothesis” in April 2012, one “at an old movie theater” and the second at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN.

Igor received a number of significant awards during his career. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Life Fellow of the IEEE. He received the IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984. He received R&D 100 Awards in 1989 and 1991. He received the NPSS Richard F. Shea Distinguished Member Award in 1993 “for contributions to NPSS, including his leadership role on the IEEE Plasma Science and Applications Committee and his service as first chairman of the IEEE Conference on Plasma Science.” He received the NPSS Plasma Science and Applications Award in 2002 “for outstanding contributions to plasma science, including pioneering work on ion acoustic waves and on plasma sheath expansion, substantial impact on the development of high power microwave sources, dedicated mentorship and education of generations of students, and extraordinary professional service, including co-founding of the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society in 1972.” In recognition of his career and service, the NPSS Outstanding Student in Plasma Science award is being renamed the Igor Alexeff Outstanding Student in Plasma Science award. As this is written, this action was awaiting final approval by TAB.

Igor was also an amateur magician who took great delight in performing a variety of impressive magic tricks for children and adults alike. One especially memorable show was Igor’s performance at the ICOPS conference banquet in 2002, where, during his PSAC Award lecture entitled “Outrageous Personal Plasma Projects,” he put on a magic show with the assistance of his wife, Anne, and at the end, actually disappeared from the stage! A few moments later, he returned to the stage from the back of the room to finish the show. Igor Alexeff was a true gentleman, scholar, teacher, and human being, beloved by friends, colleagues and students. He will be sorely missed.

Prepared by Steve Gold, Mounir Laroussi, and Steve Gitomer.
Originally published March 2013: Nuclear & Plasma Sciences Society News