PPPL launches a $4.3 million project to expand research on magnetic reconnection

Written by
John Greenwald
Feb. 28, 2014

PPPL is developing a new and more powerful version of its world-leading Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX), which recreates one of the most common but least understood phenomena in the universe. This phenomenon, in which the magnetic field lines in plasma snap apart and violently reconnect, occurs throughout the cosmos and gives rise to the northern lights, solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell-phone service and black out power grids.

The new $4.3 million device will probe facets of magnetic reconnection never before accessible to laboratory experiments, said Hantao Ji, a PPPL physicist and Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences who will serve as principal investigator for research on the new machine.  Ji headed a Princeton-led consortium that won a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) construction grant in a nationwide competition with entries from all areas of science. The University will contribute an additional $1.3 million of funds for construction of the device, to be called the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment (FLARE).

When completed in 2016, the new device will form the heart of a broad study of reconnection involving 40 participants from nearly two dozen institutions in the United States, Europe and Asia. Among the mysteries the new machine will probe is how quickly reconnection takes place in large laboratory plasmas that are relevant to the plasmas found in space and astrophysics, and how the magnetic energy turns into explosive thermal energy.

“Reconnection is tremendously important,” said PPPL Director Stewart Prager. “This gives us a vehicle to answer some of the major challenges that apply to a wide array of astrophysical phenomena.”

The increased size and power of the new machine — its diameter will be twice that of the sports-utility-sized MRX — will enable scientists to replicate reconnection in nature more faithfully, said PPPL physicist Masaaki Yamada, principal investigator for the MRX and a senior researcher on the new machine.

Joining Princeton and PPPL on the team launching the project are UCLA, the University of California-Berkeley, the universities of Maryland and Wisconsin-Madison, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We’re delighted with this opportunity to develop new scientific results,” Prager said, “and to host this device for the research community.”

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.