Scientific Advances, Programs Proliferate At Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Scientific Advances, Programs Proliferate At Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

FUSION PILOT PLANT: Shown here is PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U). The spherical device is shaped like a cored apple and can produce high-pressure plasmas — a necessity for fusion reactions — with relatively low and cost-effective magnetic fields. Temperatures of the plasma encircling the central core of the machine can exceed 10 million degrees Celsius. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications)

By Taylor Smith

A National Academy of Sciences panel chaired by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) Senior Physicist Richard Hawryluk has recommended that the U.S. move quickly to accelerate the development of fusion energy. According to PPPL, the panel presented the recommendation to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the sole body of non-governmental advisors charged with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the president and the White House.

PPPL is rapidly advancing in support of this recommendation, which calls for collaborating with private industry.

Jon Menard, deputy director for research  at PPPL in Plainsboro, said that fusion energy is the way of the future.

A potential game changer in terms of providing clean, efficient, and environmentally-sound energy, fusion energy is something that the White House is currently focusing on. This form of energy has the potential to counteract climate change and become a self-sustaining energy source. So, what exactly is fusion energy?

Menard explained, “All the energy from the sun that you see every day, that lights up our solar system and heats our planet, comes from fusion. In the case of the sun it’s hydrogen or hydrogen fusion. As gravitational forces push the nuclei together and they fuse, that process releases energy.”

“The fusion reactions themselves must reach enough heat to make the process self-sustaining,” continued Menard. “Burning plasma processes are estimated to be on course to viability in 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 been a longtime leader and pioneer in the field of plasma physics research. PPPL also works with private fusion companies, many of them startups, to address the scientific and technical issues that they face. PPPL is also engaged in exploring all design, engineering, and fabrication issues required to bring a pilot plant into operation.

Regarding PPPL’s educational offerings, Menard said, “We’re very active at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We do outreach at the high school level as well. Princeton has a program in graduate physics and I’m a product of that. In plasma physics, especially, we’re a leader. Another thing we’re doing more of is our apprenticeship program. Having a Ph.D. in plasma physics, not everyone has one of those, but we have a need for people who are technically able to offer assistance in the lab. Our lab, in collaboration with other universities around the world runs, a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI).”

Applications for SULI are accepted annually for three separate internship periods, all of which last 10 weeks. In this program, students work under the guidance of laboratory staff, scientists, and engineers.

Another program is the Young Women’s Conference, held every spring for girls in seventh through 10th grade. Due to COVID-19, the event has been online, but there is hope that it will return onsite to Princeton University’s Frick Laboratory. The conference includes speakers, demonstrations, and panels from all over the country.

K-12 students are eligible to compete in the New Jersey Regional Science Bowl, hosted by PPPL, where teams of students answer questions related to all fields of math and science. There are also a limited number of semester-long 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 classroom tours to PPPL, traditionally the lab has always opened its doors to young, curious students and teachers.

One can read more about PPPL’s scientific breakthroughs in their annual research magazine, Quest, just released for 2022 and available online at

As Lab Director Steve Cowley stated in the latest issue of Quest, “PPPL is the only national laboratory devoted to reproducing on Earth the fusion energy that powers the sun and the stars.”

The lab has also recently expanded its studies into the fields of quantum microelectronics and new areas of computer science, which seem to complement PPPL’s central goal of cutting-edge plasma science.

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