Sir Steven C. Cowley

Professor Steven Cowley, Director

"PPPL’s mission is indeed vital"

Welcome to Quest

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the summer 2019 issue of Quest, our annual research magazine that reviews scientific achievements produced during the past year by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Our Laboratory, managed by Princeton University, is the only one of the 17 U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories devoted to the development on Earth of fusion energy, the power that drives the sun and most stars, and the scientific investigation and application of plasma, the fourth state of matter that makes up 99 percent of the visible universe. Capturing fusion on Earth will provide a clean, abundant and carbon-free source of energy for generating electricity for all humankind. It is increasingly clear that the world needs such a source – PPPL’s mission is indeed vital.

Achievements noted in these pages 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 service and electrical grids. As this research continues, repair work advances on our flagship fusion facility, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), the most powerful spherical tokamak in the world and one that could serve as a model for future fusion reactors.

Our Theory Department, whose world-class work is displayed in these pages, aims to predict and explain fundamental fusion and plasma science processes. New research engages in both artificial intelligence — the branch of computer science that is transforming scientific inquiry and industry — and the U.S. Exascale Computing Project that promises to accelerate scientific discovery.

We partner on projects described in this issue with research centers around the world. Many collaborations focus on research relevant to ITER, the international fusion facility going up in France to showcase the practicality of fusion energy. We also work closely with the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator fusion device in Germany, an alternative type of fusion facility, and delivered the diagnostic instrument that confirmed the world record for stellarator power that the facility achieved last year.

We are rapidly expanding into new applications for low-temperature plasma, a less hot form of the many-million-degree plasmas that fuel fusion reactions. These pages describe our work on topics ranging from a low-temperature plasma switch to upgrade the U.S. power grid to research aimed at improving the production of nanoparticles — superstrong structures that are thousands of times thinner than a human hair and prized for their use in everything from medical treatments to microchips. As these pages demonstrate, plasma can be used for our benefit in a multitude of ways, and we are striving to understand them all.

I hope this issue conveys the excitement that we feel about our groundbreaking research in fusion and plasma science – I am proud of the extraordinary quality of PPPL’s work. Please feel free to contact me here with any thoughts that you may have. ☀︎