Bridging science and technology gaps to bring fusion power to the grid

Written by
Gwen McNamara
Feb. 12, 2024

On a visit to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Jean Paul Allain, associate director of the Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program at the DOE’s Office of Science, laid out a vision and roadmap for what it will take to create the scientific foundation for a competitive fusion power ecosystem in the U.S., one where public sector organizations like PPPL work with private industry partners to advance the commercialization of fusion energy.

As part of a town hall discussion on Feb. 6, Allain pointed to workforce development, collaboration between national laboratories, universities and industry, and the cultivation of plasma science technology discovery as key to bridging the gap between where fusion energy stands today and someday helping to power the grid with this energy source.

“Our office, our mission, is really focused on expanding the foundational, fundamental understanding of matter at very high temperatures and densities,” he said. “But, as you know, after the Energy Act of 2020, there’s this additional element to our mission and that focus is really on the establishment or the development of a competitive fusion power industry in the United States. We are in a race for fusion energy, and the world is not standing still.”

FES first announced the release of its vision, “Building Bridges: A Vision for the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences,” during the FES Advisory Committee meeting in December 2023. The FES vision enables DOE to establish the steps needed to help advance fusion energy, including addressing key science and technology gaps in the supply chain and industry, bringing the U.S. one step closer to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

This vision seeks to align FES program elements in support of the Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy — which requires aggressively addressing significant scientific and technological gaps to enable one or more viable fusion-pilot-plant designs as part of the effort to achieve ambitious climate and energy goals.

Workforce development

At PPPL, Allain reinforced open communication and inclusive outreach as critical to bringing more people into the fusion energy field. He shared his own story of coming to the U.S. from Colombia as a young person with his family and his experience as an undergraduate student in California as an example of how change needs to happen at both structural and cultural levels.

“What were the barriers then, and who were the individuals who gave me the courage to be able to keep going?” he asked, noting it was faculty and counselors who provided connections and guidance that enabled him to succeed. “That’s how it started for me. Engagement is not just about the policy. It’s also about how we engage each other. We need to be agents of empathy. We need to be able to go out there personally and be able to bring people in.”

JP Allain speaks to PPPL staff

Jean Paul Allain, associate director of the Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, speaks to staff at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications)

Partnerships and collaboration

Allain acknowledged the importance of international collaborations like ITER, the multinational facility under assembly in France, to study plasma that can heat itself and sustain its own fusion reactions. PPPL is a partner laboratory in US ITER, which is managed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with PPPL and Savannah River National Laboratory. With contributions from universities and industry, US ITER is delivering hardware design and manufacturing for 12 essential ITER systems. He also pointed to the new strategic partnership between the U.S. and U.K., which aims to accelerate the development of the scientific foundation for commercial fusion.

“Partnerships are, of course, two-way,” he said. “It’s an identification of what we can do together that will really multiply all the activity and effort that we’re doing.”

Plasma science and technology

Beyond fusion, Allain sees the expansion of public-private partnerships as critical for building a robust plasma science and technology ecosystem where national laboratories, industry and supply chains all work together.  

PPPL’s long-standing leadership in the understanding of plasma, the electrically charged fourth state of matter, as well as magnetic fusion devices like spherical tokamaks and stellarators, positions it well to take advantage of new FES priorities toward emergent plasma concepts and fusion materials and technology, Allain said. 

“[PPPL] is the destination for not only great research and science in development in fusion energy but also in being able to take that out to other technical areas,” he said, pointing to the Lab’s efforts in areas like microelectronics, quantum materials and devices, sustainability science and discovery plasma science, as well as its forward-thinking leadership in topics like nonproliferation

“We want to build bridges with industry and develop new partnerships that leverage talent and infrastructure to accelerate the science and technology needed to realize fusion,” Allain added. “Fusion is not only the solution for energy development. Fusion is the solution for economic development.”

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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 and