Fusion Energy Caucus gets firsthand look at PPPL’s research during recent visit

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Nov. 6, 2023

U.S. Congressional Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), founder and a co-chair of the Fusion Energy Caucus, and several other Department of Energy and government officials learned about fusion energy research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) during an Oct. 30 visit. 

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, and other members of PPPL’s executive team met with Beyer and other officials and toured PPPL’s fusion experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) and other experiments.

Impact "around the world" 

Beyer said developing fusion energy as a clean, carbonless and affordable source of electricity is critically important. “This is one of the most important things Congress is working on in the climate change space,” Beyer said. Fusion energy would not just affect the U.S. but “potentially around the world – when we have an energy that is low cost and non-polluting,” he added.

The visit also included Jean-Paul Allain, associate director for DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences; Grace Brightbill ’21, legislative assistant for Rep. Beyer; Jennifer Bumgarner, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs; John Farah, oversight advisor in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs; Brad Korten, legislative director for Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman; and Lisa Patterson, legislative affairs specialist at the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Cowley said he was delighted to host Beyer and the delegation. “It’s wonderful to have Don Beyer here because he’s led the Fusion Energy Caucus, which has put fusion at the top of the Congressional agenda,” Cowley said.

Members of the Fusion Energy Caucus, along with Princeton University, DOE and PPPL leaders at NSTX-U.

Members of the Fusion Energy Caucus, along with Department of Energy officials and Princeton University and PPPL leaders inside the NSTX-U test cell. (Photo by Michael Livingston/PPPL Office of Communications).

Visiting NSTX-U

Cowley along with tour guides Stefan Gerhardt, deputy director of the NSTX-U Recovery Project, and Jessica Guttenfelder, heating project engineer, explained to the delegation how NSTX-U will advance the physics and engineering solutions required for optimizing the next generation of tokamak fusion devices. Its compact, spherical design makes it an ideal candidate to serve as the model for a fusion pilot plant followed by a commercial fusion reactor. “We’re figuring out the science behind the development of fusion energy here at the Lab, and NSTX-U will help us advance this understanding,” Cowley said.

The delegation also visited the FuRTH test cell, formerly the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, which broke fusion energy records in the 1990s. Steve Langish, senior project manager, said the test cell, which is a million cubic feet and is fitted with electrical equipment and a large crane, would be an ideal spot for collaborations with private fusion energy companies. PPPL is currently collaborating with more than a dozen private companies to help speed the development of a fusion pilot plant.

The tour stopped at the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment, an international and multi-institutional effort that will explore magnetic reconnection, the astrophysical process that causes solar flares and Northern lights, and later visited the wing of the Lab dedicated to PPPL’s expanded research mission. Emily Carter, senior strategic advisor and associate laboratory director for applied materials and sustainability sciences, gave the group an overview of PPPL’s current work in microelectronics, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The group visited the Microelectronics Laboratory, led by physicist Yevgeny Raitses, principal investigator on the project.

Meeting technicians in PPPL's Apprenticeship Program

Throughout the tour, the group met with early-career technicians, researchers, and engineers. This included Abby Fellnor, Aaron Floyd, Sean Hough, and Kevin Purdy, all of whom are part of the Lab’s Apprenticeship Program, a four-year “learn as you earn” effort that prepares the next generation for highly technical careers. The Lab’s first cohort, which includes Purdy, graduates this November. 

“We are thrilled at the success of the apprenticeship program and have hired all four of the first year cohort, who are now full-time Lab employees,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic partnerships. “We continue to expand the program into areas of need within PPPL to support the mission of our laboratory.”

The group also met with three early-career staff members: engineers Claudia Bernhardt and Antonio Falcon and physicist Mark Martirez who discussed their connection to the PPPL mission, what drives their work, and what opportunities and challenges lie ahead.

Lunch with President Eisgruber

After the tour, the delegation joined Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University’s president, Jennifer Rexford, provost; Julie Groeninger, director of government affairs; and Aaron McClendon, assistant director of government affairs, along with Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-N.J.) at a luncheon at the University. 

The PPPL visit concluded with a debriefing and remarks by Cowley, Allain, and Beyer.

“It was clear while we were walking around here, the tremendous momentum taking place here,” Allain said. “It’s important to appreciate what it takes to do this. It’s the facility but also the people. It’s the talent at all levels that allow us to have this.”

Jean-Paul Allain, associate director for DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences along with Rep. Don Beyer and Steve Cowley, PPPL director.

Cowley, Jean-Paul Allain, associate director for DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences; and Beyer at a meeting after the tour. (Photo by Michael Livingston/PPPL Office of Communications)

Beyer said he is optimistic about the future of fusion energy. “It’s so much fun to talk to young people and tell them the world’s not going to end because we can have a solution if we put in the work,” he said.

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.