Scientific advances and programs proliferate at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
FUSION PILOT PLANT: Shown here is PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX-U) upgrade. The spherical device is shaped like a hollowed-out apple and can produce high-pressure plasmas – a necessity for fusion reactions – with relatively low and cost-effective magnetic fields. Plasma temperatures surrounding the machine’s central core can exceed 10 million degrees Celsius. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Communications Office)
By Taylor Smith
A National Academy of Sciences panel chaired by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) senior physicist Richard Hawryluk has recommended the United States act quickly to accelerate the development of fusion power. According to PPPL, the panel presented the recommendation to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the only body of non-governmental advisors responsible for making science, technology and innovation policy recommendations to the President and the White House.
PPPL is making rapid progress on this recommendation, which calls for collaboration with private industry.
Jon Menard, Deputy Director of Research at PPPL in Plainsboro, said fusion power is the way of the future.
A potential game-changer in terms of providing clean, efficient and environmentally friendly energy, fusion power is something the White House is currently focusing on. This form of energy has the potential to fight climate change and become a self-sufficient source of energy. So what exactly is fusion energy?
Menard explained, “All the energy from the sun that you see every day, which illuminates our solar system and heats our planet, comes from fusion. In the case of the sun, it is hydrogen or hydrogen fusion. When gravitational forces push the nuclei together and they fuse together, this process releases energy.
“The fusion reactions themselves must reach enough heat to make the process self-sustaining,” Menard continued. “Plasma combustion processes are estimated to be on track to become viable by the 2030s.”
PPPL, which is managed by Princeton University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, is a highly collaborative and international community of scientists where people from around the world share ideas and questions. Princeton University has long been a leader and pioneer in the field of plasma physics research. PPPL also works with private fusion companies, many of which are startups, to solve the scientific and technical problems they face. PPPL is also engaged in exploring all design, engineering and manufacturing issues necessary to commission a pilot plant.
Regarding PPPL’s educational offerings, Menard said, “We are very active at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We also raise awareness at the secondary level. Princeton has a graduate program in physics and I am a product of it. In plasma physics, in particular, we are a leader. Another thing we are doing more of is our apprenticeship program. Have a doctorate. in plasma physics, not everyone has one, but we need people who are technically able to offer assistance in the laboratory. Our laboratory, in collaboration with other universities around the world, organizes an undergraduate science laboratory internship (SULI).
SULI applications are accepted each year for three separate internship periods, all of which are 10 weeks long. In this program, students work under the guidance of laboratory staff, scientists, and engineers.
Another program is the Young Women’s Conference, held each spring for girls in grades seven through 10. Due to COVID-19, the event has been online, but it is hoped it will return on-site at Princeton University’s Frick Lab. The conference includes speakers, demonstrations and panels from across the country.
Students in grades K-12 are eligible to participate in the New Jersey Regional Science Bowl, hosted by PPPL, where teams of students answer questions related to all areas of math and science. There are also a limited number of one-semester internships at PPPL for high school students. These are offered in the fall, spring and/or summer. And, although COVID-19 has reduced the number of class visits to PPPL, traditionally the lab has always opened its doors to curious young students and teachers.
More about PPPL’s scientific breakthroughs can be read in their annual research magazine, Quest, just released for 2022 and available online at pppl.gov.
As lab director Steve Cowley said in the latest issue of Quest, “PPPL is the only national lab dedicated to reproducing on Earth the fusion energy that powers the sun and stars.”
The lab has also recently expanded its studies into quantum microelectronics and new areas of computing, which appear to complement PPPL’s central focus of advanced plasma science.