PPPL looks to the future as it breaks ground on the Princeton Plasma Innovation Center

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
May 13, 2024

State-of-the-art building will support new research areas in microelectronics, quantum sensors and devices, and sustainability sciences

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) broke ground May 9 on the new Princeton Plasma Innovation Center (PPIC), a state-of-the-art office and laboratory building that signals a new era for PPPL, providing space for research supporting PPPL’s expanded mission into microelectronics, quantum sensors and devices, and sustainability sciences.

The gleaming 68,000-square foot, $109.7 million project is the first new building at PPPL in several decades and will replace two buildings that date back to the 1950s: the Theory Wing and Administration Wing. It is designed to be a high-performance, sustainable building that will be gold certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The goal is for PPIC to be a zero-carbon emissions building that complies with President Biden’s Executive Order 14057

Leaders from PPPL, the DOE and Princeton University, along with local government officials and dozens of staff members, gathered on the lawn of the Theory Wing for the ceremony in the area where the new building will be constructed.  

PPIC is a sign “the Lab is moving forward,” said Steve Cowley, Laboratory director. “We’re strengthening our commitment to deliver fusion energy,” Cowley said. “We’re also using our expertise to help other parts of the economy, particularly in microelectronics and sustainable manufacturing. We’re going to need the labs and offices in PPIC in order to drive that vision forward.”

First major building in more than 50 years 

Cowley noted the last major building to break ground at PPPL was the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) in 1977. (A silver shovel from that groundbreaking had a place of honor at the podium.) He paid homage to the Theory Wing, which was built in the 1950s and was home to many great physicists. Cowley said he spent many years early in his career in the building, first as a Princeton University graduate student and later as a physicist. “Demolishing the building is a bit bittersweet for me,” he said. “It’s a bit like demolishing my childhood home.”

Cowley and Hawryluk

Cowley and Richard Hawryluk, a senior technical advisor in the Office of the Deputy Director for Science Programs in the DOE’s Office of Science, who is a former interim director of the Laboratory and former head of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). Hawryluk is holding a silver shovel used in the TFTR groundbreaking in 1977. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

PPIC will help PPPL contribute research to achieve President Biden’s “Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” to achieve commercial fusion energy by 2035 or 2040, Cowley said.  

PPPL is partnering with commercial fusion companies to work toward that “ambitious” goal, he said in his remarks. PPIC will house theoretical and computational scientists and will support artificial intelligence and high-performance computing. Some laboratory space will be devoted to computational sciences and tools that analyze and understand plasma, the ionized gas in fusion reactions. The Lab’s expertise in computation is unparalleled and already yielding significant research results.

Facilities to communicate with collaborators around the world

PPIC will also have remote collaboration space and a virtual reality cube where PPPL scientists can communicate with research partners at experiments around the world, such as the international ITER in France, the Wendelstein 7-X in Germany and the KSTAR in Korea, among others.  

PPPL’s science education team will have a new laboratory in PPIC where they can teach young people about plasma and fusion energy and train the next generation of scientists. Assemblywoman Tennille McCoy (D-NJ) said workforce development is essential. “Diversity is so important. We have one of the most diverse talent pipelines here in New Jersey, and it’s really important that we provide the necessary tools and resources for individuals to be successful, to meet expectations and for us to support organizations as they thrive here in New Jersey.”

Strong partnerships with the DOE and Princeton University 

PPIC would not be possible without a strong partnership between PPPL, the DOE and Princeton University, said Sandy Rogan, Princeton Site Office manager, and David McComas, vice president for PPPL. The building is primarily funded by the DOE’s Science Laboratories Infrastructure (SLI) program. Princeton University contributed $10 million to the project for preconstruction activities. These include site preparation, clearing, underground utility relocations and demolition of the Theory Wing and part of the Administration Wing, slated for late summer.

people standing with shovels at building groundbreaking event

DOE and Princeton University partners, from left: Jaime Hrzic, federal project director; David McComas, vice president for PPPL; Sandy Rogan, Princeton Site Office manager; Juston Fontaine, deputy director for field operations of the DOE’s Office of Science; Chelle Reno, assistant vice president for operations for PPPL; Amro Habib, Princeton Site Office deputy site manager; Brandon Thorne, director of the Office of the Vice President for PPPL. Rogan’s (right-side image) oversight of the project has been instrumental in leading the effort forward. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston and Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

PPIC is the “cornerstone for a new vision for the Laboratory,” said Juston Fontaine, deputy director for field operations of the DOE’s Office of Science. Fontaine said he has noticed a change at PPPL over the past few years as the Laboratory’s mission has expanded and its staff has grown. “It’s really a joy to see the evolution that has taken place here,” he said. “I want to take a moment just to thank the Laboratory staff. Thank you, and I hope you take pride in the fact that you’re associated with this great Laboratory.” 

PPPL has provided jobs and educational opportunities while also supporting Plainsboro Township’s emergency services, said Mayor Peter Cantu. “We’re proud to have you in our community, and we wish you great success on this new project,” he said. He recalled receiving a five-inch thick environmental impact statement from PPPL about the TFTR in the 1970s. Cantu joked that he didn’t understand the report, but the PPPL director at the time made a presentation to the council, “and he made it almost understandable,” Cantu said. “The thing that I came away with from that is the importance of the work that you are doing and its potential to benefit not just the state, not just the locality, but the world.” 

Tim Meyer, chief operating officer, noted that the groundbreaking took place during Fusion Energy Week, which is dedicated to educating the public about the research aimed at developing fusion energy. “Change is a necessary part of growth and development,” Meyer said. “PPIC is literally going to be a place where this Laboratory and its stakeholders will push the frontiers of discovery and innovation in partnership with collaborators from around the region and the world.” 

Meyer especially thanked those deeply involved with the PPIC project, along with the original leaders of the effort: David Carle, head of facilities and site services; Stephen Langish, senior project manager; Dennis Pasternak, facilities project manager; Gjergj Shota, construction project manager; Margaret Carideo, project planning and control officer; Joy Fleming, construction and project safety lead; Marlo Ramos, senior quality assurance engineer; Chi Man Cheung, senior procurement manager; Venkat Bommisetty; science infrastructure and operations coordinator; and Kenyon Petura, campus development manager. 

“We couldn’t have reached this milestone without the help, passion and dedication of everyone at PPPL, particularly the PPIC project team,” he said.  

People standing with shovels

Members of the larger PPIC team, from left: Gjergj Shota, construction project manager; Dennis Pasternak, facilities project manager; Stephen Langish, senior project manager; Kenyon Petura, campus development manager; Hekima Qualls, chief procurement officer; David Carle, head of facilities and site services; Joy Fleming, construction and project safety lead; Margaret Carideo, project planning and control officer; and Venkat Bommisetty, science infrastructure and operations coordinator. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

A new “town center” on PPPL’s campus

PPIC is envisioned as an iconic building that will become “the town center” of PPPL’s campus. The U-shaped building has three axes: the first floor of the north wing is a collaborative wing where visitors will enter. Above it are the second and third floors of the north wing, which are set at an angle to overlap the first floor and will be dedicated mostly to office space for around 170 staff members. The laboratory wing to the south has 10 medium-bay laboratories and 13 small-bay laboratories on the ground floor. These include fusion-centric laboratories, such as diagnostic development and X-ray labs, as well as laboratories that support PPPL’s research diversification in microelectronics, quantum sensors and devices, and sustainability sciences.

The laboratory wing connector and the north wing intersect at the cafe, which connects with PPPL’s main office building, the Lyman Spitzer Building. The cafe features retractable walls on each side, opening up to the courtyard and the north garden, as does the science education laboratory and other meeting rooms on the first floor. The overlapping buildings create a triangular roof garden to the north of the building entrance.

An aerial rendering of PPIC

An aerial rendering of PPIC. (Photo credit: SmithGroup) 

Light, shadow and colors 

The building was designed to use light, shadow and colors, symbolizing solar plasma, movement, energy, synergy and impact, according to SmithGroup, the building’s architects. Sustainability is an integral part of the architectural features. Architects will use glass extensively in the building, especially on the north wing, for example, to maximize daylight for offices and reduce the use of electric lights. Rows of colorful shades extending alongside the north wing in rows at the front of the building will add color and enhance shading. The shades reduce direct heat and glare from the sun by 88%, reducing the need for air conditioning. 

The geothermal exchange system is based on 70 new geoexchange wells that will be dug 500 feet beneath the ground in the football field-sized courtyard in between the north and south wings. The geoexchange technology extracts heat from the building in the summer and stores it deep beneath the ground to heat the building in winter. It will provide about two-thirds of the heating and cooling for the building. 

The PPIC project team consulted experts at Princeton University, which has installed 700 new geoexchange wells on the University’s campus to achieve a zero-carbon footprint by 2046. 

people standing with shovels in front of poster for building

Members of SmithGroup’s team of architects in front of a PPIC rendering. From left: Tom Faucette, principal science and technology studio leader; Sven Shockey, vice president and design director; and Maryjane King, lead campus planner. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Sustainable materials 

The building is designed to incorporate sustainable materials as much as possible, and materials will be purchased from American companies, a DOE requirement. The roofs on the two wings of the building will accommodate solar cells if a future phase of the project includes solar power. Other sustainable features are designed to save water by installing efficient features, such as a rain garden that absorbs water and native plants with low irrigation requirements.

A community swell gathers at the event

audience seated at event

PPPL staff at the PPIC groundbreaking. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Lab employees were invited to the event, and more than 250 gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony on the lawn outside the Theory Wing, along with invited guests from Princeton University. They wore PPIC buttons and collected stickers made for the occasion to commemorate the event and gave each of the speakers a warm round of applause. The event was followed by the Lab’s staff picnic, informally called the “P-Picnic,” in which staff and visitors celebrated the momentous occasion.

“This is one of those moments when we all work for the beginning of something transformational,” Meyer said. “We are building a new future for this legendary Laboratory.”

closeup of stickers and buttons, with people sitting at picnic table with food.

Top images: Stickers and buttons helped to celebrate the occasion. Bottom image: A few staff members enjoy the P-Picnic. (Photo credit: Gwen McNamara and Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

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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 https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.