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Princeton University Energy Scholars report focuses on fusion energy

Magnetic fusion has “enormous promise as a global energy source” if researchers are able to make “significant progress in several areas of science and technology” in the coming decades, according to a recent report published by Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

The report was researched and written by 10 Ph.D. students who are part of the Princeton Energy Scholars graduate school honor society at the Princeton Environmental Institute. The students, supervised by Princeton University faculty mentor Robert Socolow, are from a variety of fields that include electrical engineering, psychology and public policy. The students visited the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL ) in June 2014 and spoke with PPPL researchers, including former Deputy Director for Operations Adam Cohen now with the U.S. Department of Energy, as part of their research. Other PPPL staff whom the students consulted for technical information are: Nat Fisch, Rob Goldston, Greg Hammett, Dale Meade, Stewart Prager and Andrew Zwicker.

“I am impressed with how well the students have captured essential elements of fusion from essentially a cold start,” said PPPL Director Stewart Prager. “The report is interesting reading and will be very useful to those wishing a lucid summary of fusion.”

The report notes that the students recognized “a special challenge” to their objectivity arising from the fact that PPPL is a national Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory that is operated by Princeton University.  “Although we consulted with several fusion experts at PPPL, this report was written independently of PPPL and does not represent its views,” the students wrote. “We have sought to write an impartial and rigorous assessment, the kind that we would most want to read ourselves.”

Fusion energy offers unique advantages over current methods of generating electricity because its fuel is nearly inexhaustible, the report said. It could provide enough energy to meet global demand without producing carbon emissions that are linked to global warming. Fusion also avoids some of the issues of nuclear waste and potential danger to the environment associated with nuclear fission plants, according to the report.  

Another advantage: fusion energy power plants could be located in areas where renewable energy such as wind or solar would not work, the report said. Fusion plants also would not affect the health or environment of local communities.

The nation’s newest magnetic fusion experiment is the NSTX-U (National Spherical Torus Experiment–Upgrade) at PPPL. This spherical tokamak is designed to  gather information over the next decade on how to inform the next generation of fusion devices, and perhaps lead to a fusion demonstration or pilot plant.

But fusion energy faces several scientific and technological challenges to create, maintain, and manipulate a plasma at temperatures of up to 200 million degrees Celsius − far hotter than the sun, the report said.

Those challenges go hand-in-hand with policy challenges regarding funding, the report said.  Fusion scientists have formed international collaborations to overcome this challenge, most notably ITER, the massive international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France.

The report, or “distillate,” is divided into five sections that include an introduction and a discussion of four major issues. The full report can be downloaded here.

  • An executive summary, overview, and key concepts
  • Technology: The report states that some of the major challenges in fusion energy include how to maintain a “burning plasma,” a plasma that sustains itself, which is the goal of ITER. Other key technological challenges include how to produce enough of the radioactive material tritium for fusion plants to operate.
  • Economics: Fusion will be competitive if it can find a way to control instabilities that could damage components and thus avoid shutting down future power plants, the report said. Another challenge is finding materials that are strong enough to last without having to be frequently replaced. The report said a strong climate policy would help make fusion more competitive.
  • Fusion and Fission: The report compares fusion and fission power. Fusion power plants do not use plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the materials used in nuclear fission plants. Thus they would not cause a nuclear meltdown in the event of an accident. Fusion power plants would not have the same issues of nuclear waste disposal as nuclear fission power plants and materials could not be used to create nuclear weapons.
  • Politics and Progress: Countries that fund the ITER fusion experiment, which could begin operating in 2026 at a cost of more than $20 billion, find it challenging to also fund a strong domestic fusion research program, the report said. The next step would be to build a DEMO, a demonstration experiment that would be “a bridge between ITER and an eventual commercial reactor.”  

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.


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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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