Basic Plasma Science
Key Laboratory projects include the study of Hall thrusters that satellites and space probes use for propulsion. PPPL’s Hall Thruster Experiment (HTX) strives to understand the physics of Hall thrusters and related systems that expel plasma as a propellant. Hall thrusters originated in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and research and development are carried out today in the United States, the European Union, Russia, Japan, Korea and China. PPPL research has expanded knowledge of the science behind such systems and has led to new conceptual designs.
The charged particles in plasma can be focused into beams that have many applications. The Laboratory’s research on beam dynamics aims to identify the optimal design for these beams, which consist of negatively charged electrons or positively charged atomic nuclei, or ions. Applications for such beams range from their use in particle accelerators that explore the nature of matter to experiments that attempt to create fusion by bombarding hydrogen fuel capsules with ions.
The Laboratory is developing a plasma-based system to manufacture a radioactive element vital to medical exams. The project uses plasma-produced neutrons to create Molybdenum 99 (Mo-99),which decays to Technitium-99m (Tc-99m), the world’s most widely used radioisotope for medical diagnostic tests. The industry that currently produces Mo-99 has insufficient capacity to meet long-term needs, and hospitals could use the PPPL system to produce Mo-99 on their premises and avoid lengthy supply chains.
PPPL is using its expertise in plasma to synthesize nanomaterials, which are measured in billionths of a meter and prized for their use in everything from golf clubs to microchips. PPPL’s new nanolaboratory has produced test batches of nanomaterials and could become a step toward research capabilities that can serve as a resource for institutions and industries around the world.
PPPL employs strong magnets to control the plasma in fusion and plasma science experiments. The Laboratory’s new Princeton Tritium Observatory for Light, Early Universe, Massive Neutrino Yield (PTOLEMY) employs magnets in a system that seeks to detect neutrinos created shortly after the Big Bang. Detection of these relic neutrinos, which are thought to be among the oldest and smallest subatomic particles, could provide important insights into the formation of the early universe.