A Decade of Fusion, Astrophysics and Nanotechnology at PPPL

Breakthroughs and developments of a remarkable decade. (Photos and collage by Elle Starkman)

Breakthroughs and developments of a remarkable decade. (Photos and collage by Elle Starkman)

What a decade it’s been for fusion and plasma physics research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL)! PPPL scientists have published research at a clip of some 300 articles a year in peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings, or presented at scientific meetings over the decade. We’ve compiled a list of 10 highlights over the past 10 years featuring five research breakthroughs and five key developments that provide quick insight into the breadth of research and development at PPPL – from fusion to astrophysics to nanotechnology!


2019 – Artificial intelligence accelerates the quest for fusion energy. Key findings have demonstrated the ability of deep learning to predict disruptions within the 30-millisecond time frame required by ITER – the international experiment under construction in France to demonstrate the practicality of fusion energy – while sharply reducing the number of false alarms. The research speeds development on Earth of clean, virtually limitless fusion energy that powers the sun and stars.

2019 – Recreating astrophysical plasma jets that stream from stars and black holes. Researchers at PPPL have for the first time produced a cosmic jet in a laboratory experiment, paving the way for the laboratory understanding of astrophysical jets light years away that accelerate to near the speed of light.

2018 – Improving development of nanoparticles found in countless commercial products. PPPL research has advanced understanding of plasma-based nanosynthesis that could serve as a resource for institutions and industries around the world. The advanced understanding will improve the manufacturing and economics of products ranging from carbon nanotubes used in a great many industries to plasma-etched computer microchips.

2014 – Measuring the details of energy conversion that triggers acute outbursts in space. PPPL has discovered how magnetic reconnection, which produces auroras, northern lights and geomagnetic space storms, converts magnetic energy to particle energy. The finding that 50 percent of the magnetic energy becomes particle energy, with two-thirds going to ions and one-third to electrons, marks the first detailed description of energy flows during this universal process.

2012 –Elegant model for predicting the magnitude of a key fusion challenge. PPPL research reported in 2012 a simple yet elegant model for estimating the width of a section of plasma called the “scrape-off layer” that, if too narrow, can seriously damage a fusion facility. The journal Nuclear Fusion named the paper the best one it published that year. The journal called the research “Potentially one of the most important results obtained in recent years in fusion,” which “ultimately could have significant impact on the future direction of the field.”

Key developments:

2019 – New supercomputer advances PPPL fusion research. Princeton University installs the supercomputer Traverse in the University’s High-Performance Research Center. Access to the supercomputer speeds the pace of PPPL research, providing quicker turnaround of projects.

2018 – Steve Cowley becomes seventh director of PPPL. World-renowned fusion physicist previously ran the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the United Kingdom and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his role in fusion science.

2017 – PPPL expertise critical to the path-setting Wendelstein fusion device in Germany. PPPL leads U.S. collaboration on the world’s largest and most powerful stellarator experiment. PPPL and the DOE-funded program have provided diagnostics, magnetic coils, and staff to strengthen the international collaboration.

2016 –PPPL leads project to produce first whole model of a fusion plasma. The computer code, to be developed on exascale supercomputers during the first round of the Exascale Computing Project, promises to provide a detailed picture of the behavior of burning plasma heated by fusion reactions.

2013 – New center for research on the sun. The Princeton Center for Heliophysics focuses on the development of models that include fundamental plasma processes, such as magnetic reconnection, shocks, instabilities and turbulence, to predict space weather such as solar eruptions and planetary substorms. Principal accomplishments of the Center, which includes faculty, staff and students from PPPL and the Princeton University Department of Astrophysical Sciences, include a new model of reconnection mediated by what are called “plasmoid instabilities;” identification of a new dynamo mechanism for large-scale magnetic field growth from small-scale turbulence; and development of a comprehensive suite of computer codes for the study of plasma instabilities and predictions of space weather in planets and exoplanets.

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