From new insights into the control of nuclear fusion to improved understanding of the fabrication of material thousands of time thinner than a human hair, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) achieved wide-ranging advances in 2018. Research at the Laboratory focuses on the physics of plasma, the state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that fuels the fusion reactions that light the sun and stars and underlies fundamental processes throughout the cosmos. Here, in no particular order, are 10 not-to-be-missed PPPL stories from 2018 that include findings in areas as diverse as the drive to replicate fusion on Earth and to understand the source of auroras, solar flares and geomagnetic storms. Included is a discussion of educating youths in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), the foundation for innovative achievement, plus a bonus profile of Steve Cowley, the knight who directs the Laboratory.
1. From the Earth to the heavens. Experimental findings show striking agreement with observations of a NASA mission that studies an explosive process in the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth.
2. Controlling flare-like bursts that halt fusion reactions. Research develops and confirms an optimum method for stabilizing instabilities that erupt during fusion experiments and can damage the facilities that house the reactions.
3. Remarkable discovery about a source of magnetic fields. Surprise findings reveal that a process long known to generate fields can sever them as well.
4. Reducing disruptions in ITER — the tokamak built to show the feasibility of fusion power. A fresh approach that integrates models of the plasma that will fuel ITER reactions with instabilities that lead to disruptions together with the feedback from waves that are meant to control them.
5. Improving performance of the world’s most advanced stellarator. PPPL has designed and delivered magnetic coils that enhance the performance of Germany’s Wendelstein 7-X — a machine built to test the suitability of the stellarator design for future fusion power plants.
6. Unsawing sawtooth swings in fusion plasmas. PPPL physicists identify the physics behind the disappearance of up-and-down swings that can play a leading role in plasma disruptions.
7. Advanced understanding of tiny, superstrong structures found throughout industry. Research on nanoparticles measured in billionths of a meter have improved understanding of a way to produce them.
8. Paving the way for capturing fusion on Earth. Collaboration between PPPL and General Atomics uncovers a way to control instabilities that could lead to efficient and steady state fusion reactions.
9. Why the halo around the sun is so much hotter than the solar surface. New findings suggest that the development of turbulence inside the plasma that makes up the sun causes heat to flow from the surface to the corona, or halo, that surrounds our star.
10. A program leader in science education discusses engaging students and the public in STEM. Shannon Swilley Greco has found that PPPL outreach programs improve participants’ attitudes towards science and encourage students to see themselves as scientists.
Bonus. Return of the knight. PPPL Director Steve Cowley, a world-class physicist who earned his doctorate as a graduate student at PPPL and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in October, discusses his vision for developing controlled fusion energy here on Earth.
PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov (link is external).