From helping the nation’s power grid to advancing the creation of “a star in a jar” for a virtually endless supply of electric power, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have developed insights and discoveries over the past year that advance understanding of the universe and the prospect for safe, clean, and abundant energy.
“Achievements range from discoveries of new ways to produce efficient fusion reactions to insights into the process that triggers northern lights, solar flares and violent geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell phone serve and electrical grids,” writes Steve Cowley, PPPL director, in the 2019 edition of Quest, PPPL’s annual research magazine. Quest, just published in July 2019, summarizes in short, easy-to-digest format much of the research that occurred at PPPL over the last year.
Among the stories are descriptions of how scientists are finding ways to tame the instabilities in plasma that can lead to the disruption of fusion reactions. Such research is critical to the next steps in advancing fusion energy to enable fusion devices to produce and sustain reactions that require temperatures many times hotter than the core of the sun.
The power that drives sun
Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, fuses light elements and releases energy. If scientists can capture and control fusion on Earth, the process could provide clean energy to produce electricity for millions of years with no greenhouse gases.
Plasma, the state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that fuels fusion reactions and makes up 99 percent of the visible universe, unites PPPL research from astrophysics to nanotechnology to the science of fusion energy. Much of the research described here can be applied to ITER, the large multinational fusion device under construction in France. For example, in the section New Paths to Fusion Energy, scientists describe that understanding the heating of electrons and ions – as ITER will do – can improve fusion reactions.
Quest details other efforts to understand the scientific basis of fusion and plasma behavior. For example, in the section on Advancing Fusion Theory, physicists describe how artificial intelligence can help predict and tame disruptions – thereby improving fusion reactions. Our new AI program will run on Aurora, the nation’s first exascale computing system coming to the Oak Ridge Leadership Computer Facility in 2021.
In Advancing Plasma Science, learn how low-temperature plasma can be used in nanosynthesis – a tool for creating nanostructures that can be used in industries from pharmaceuticals to microchips and consumer electronics. These structures are thousands of times thinner than the diameter of a human hair, but have enormous potential in many consumer industries.
And from nano-sized structures, one can also read about research to understand the astrophysical universe. Learn about magnetic reconnection, a process that occurs throughout the universe, and how PPPL scientists’ findings can help understand how reconnection can impact Earth.
Included in Quest are descriptions of collaborations PPPL scientists and engineers have working on fusion devices around the world. These collaborations include other devices besides ITER, including research on devices in China, South Korea, Germany and elsewhere in the United States.
Read also about PPPL’s long-standing efforts to educate students, teachers, and the public around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), as well as some of the award-winning work by scientists and inventors at PPPL.
PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science (link is external).