PPPL July 9, 2018
From analyzing solar flares to pursuing “a star in a jar” to produce virtually limitless 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 for all humankind.
“Our research sheds new light on the function of plasma, the state of matter that comprises 99 percent of the visible universe,” writes Steve Cowley, new director of PPPL, in the 2018 edition of Quest, PPPL’s annual research magazine. Quest, just published in July 2018, 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 calm instabilities 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.
Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, fuses light elements and releases enormous energy. If scientists can capture and control fusion on Earth, the process could provide clean energy to produce electricity for millions of years.
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. Could planets beyond our solar system be habitable, for example? PPPL and Princeton scientists say that stellar winds — the outpouring of charged plasma particles from the sun into space — could deplete a planet’s atmosphere and dry up life-giving water over hundreds of millions of years, rendering a blow to the theory that these planets could host life as we know it.
Quest details efforts to understand the scientific basis of fusion and plasma behavior. For example, in the section on Advancing Fusion Theory, physicists describe how bubble-like “blobs” that arise at the edge of the plasma can carry off heat needed for fusion reactions. Improved understanding of such behavior could lead to better control of the troublesome blobs.
Another story outlines how researchers are using a form of artificial intelligence called “machine learning” to predict when disruptions that can halt fusion reactions and damage fusion devices occur. The innovative technique has so far yielded outstanding results.
Included in Quest are descriptions of collaborations PPPL scientists and engineers have working on fusion devices around the world. These collaborations include ITER, the large multinational fusion device under construction in France, as well as research on devices in China, South Korea, and at the National Ignition Facility 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.