Sir Steven C. Cowley

Professor Steven Cowley, Director

Welcome to Quest

I am happy to welcome you to the 2020 issue of Quest, our annual research magazine that reviews scientific achievements during the past year at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), managed by Princeton University for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Ours is the only one of the 17 DOE national laboratories devoted to capturing and controlling on Earth fusion energy, the power that drives the sun and stars, and advancing the understanding and applications of plasma, the fourth state of matter that makes up 99 percent of the visible universe.

As we look back, we are also looking forward. PPPL is embarking on a major initiative to expand our development of the science of cost-effective nanoscale fabrication — the production of tiny materials many times thinner than a human hair with applications ranging from rocket propulsion to microchip etching, and other industries of the future. Such fabrication for microelectronics will be central to the future of U.S. competitiveness and economic security. To help with this effort, we are expanding our computer capabilities into the next generation of supercomputing, and growing our expertise in multifaceted research areas. Our advanced research in plasma-material interactions, such as nanomaterial synthesis, plasma processing, and plasma-surface modification, have made PPPL an attractive partner for industries using plasmas to create their products.

The past highly productive and exciting year has laid the foundation for wide-ranging development of our Laboratory’s mission. We have launched artificial intelligence projects to grasp the science behind the practical application of fusion energy, which can provide clean, abundant, and virtually limitless carbon-free energy for generating electricity for all humanity. Our research has advanced understanding of key areas ranging from predicting and preventing disruptions that can halt fusion reactions to streamlining the design of fusion facilities. And we have seen the National Academy of Sciences propose an accelerated framework for fusion development.

Meanwhile, we continue the process of repairing our flagship fusion experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), the most powerful spherical tokamak in the world that we plan to restart next year.

In the study of plasma physics, our researchers and engineers have produced a number of firsts. We are readying the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment (FLARE), our powerful new device for studying magnetic reconnection — the somewhat mysterious connecting, breaking apart and reconnecting of magnetic fields in the cosmos — to begin research next year. Our upgraded Lithium Tokamak Experiment-Beta (LTX-β) is now operating, exploring how the seemingly magic metal lithium can help harness fusion energy. And our Plasma Physics and Technology Department has joined forces with Princeton University to launch a new collaborative national facility to advance the understanding and control of low-temperature plasma — a rapidly expanding source of innovation for fields ranging from electronics as cited above to health care to space exploration.

Through all this, our prolific, productive research staff remains at the forefront of its fields. Among other PPPL collaborations is our participation in the new Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) program, a DOE-supported public-private partnership alliance to accelerate the development of fusion energy, which a PPPL physicist co-directs. Another Laboratory scientist co-leads a new national program to unify research on the use of liquid metals in future fusion facilities; still another PPPL scientist co-chaired a nationwide, year-long proposed fusion community plan – a blueprint, essentially – to hasten the arrival of fusion energy in this country.

You will also find stories in these pages about the wide-ranging activities of our first-rate Science Education Department, which reaches out to students and teachers across the country, as well as the array of honors and awards that our researchers and graduate students in plasma physics have won – further testament to the high quality of our research and academic staff. We are busy building upon the exciting and path-setting achievements of the past year, and I hope that you enjoy this issue and plan to stay tuned here. Please also feel free to contact me here with any thoughts that you may have; I welcome your feedback and ideas.