Last December world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss rising sea levels, intensifying heat waves, melting glaciers, and shifting seasons. In a landmark decision signed by 178 countries, nations worldwide committed to holding the temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” an agreement that, to keep, will require resolve, ambition and innovation in alternative energy.
About three miles from Princeton’s main campus lies an institution fundamentally optimistic of the solutions science has to offer to climate change-the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The laboratory, known as PPPL, is dedicated to researching fusion energy.
Fusion, in theory, is an ideal candidate for alternative energy. It is fueled by material found all around us, from seawater to mineable metals. It doesn’t release greenhouse gas. It is also powerful; capable of producing more energy than solar or wind. And unlike its cousin, fission energy, which involves splitting heavier atoms, fusion doesn’t have the same potentially adverse implications for nuclear proliferation, as the material and byproducts of fusion energy are not suitable for producing nuclear weapons.
Of course, fusion has remained an elusive solution to our energy crisis since its inception-indeed, the laboratory, known as PPPL, has been operating for decades. Research in magnetic fusion at Princeton began in 1951 under the code name Project Matterhorn, when Lyman Spitzer, Jr., professor of astronomy at Princeton University, launched a study of thermonuclear fusion with support from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
The project has grown tremendously in scale since its early years. The facility currently holds 454 full-time employees, and 38 graduate students, as well as additional subcontractors and other visiting research staff. In 2015 the laboratory got an upgrade to the tune of $94 million. Known as the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U), the facility now holds the most powerful “spherical tokamak” fusion reactor in the world. The machine, weighing 85 tons and filling a room larger than a football stadium, creates what physics operator Devon Battaglia calls a “star in a jar.” It heats charged gases to temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius, essentially recreating reactions that occur in the sun when lighter atoms combine to form heavier atoms and in the process release energy, heat, and light.
For those interested in seeing the research up close, the facility offers the public a chance to take a peek. PPPL offers public tours the first and third Friday of most months, excluding holidays — the next open public tour will take place Friday, August 19. (More information can found at www.pppl.gov/about/tours)
“We are a taxpayer-funded laboratory, and it’s the public’s right to want to know how their investment is being spent,” says Battaglia, although he adds he didn’t become a tour guide solely out of a sense of duty. “I love being able to describe what we do here and watching curiosity turn into enthusiasm during a tour.”
Tours give participants a firsthand look at the technological insight scientists have gleaned from studying fusion. Participants are shown around the facility, and are encouraged to experiment with technology through interactive labs and magnets. The tour also showcases a laboratory that looks a Star Trek set.
“In this day and age of taking selfies, that’s one of the things people love the most, taking pictures with various scientific equipment,” Battaglia says.
When Battaglia isn’t leading tours, he works as a resident scientist, helping to gather research and assist in running experiments with scientists who visit from all over the globe. Battaglia says that in the months after the lab’s renovation, scientists have made a flurry of new exciting discoveries.
“We are in the first year of using this new technology, and for the last couple months, every day we are seeing something new and demonstrating something for the first time,” Battaglia says.
While scientists have been able to demonstrate the potential of fusion energy in a series of groundbreaking experiments, as of yet there have been no efforts to build a functioning fusion power plant. The biggest barrier to making fusion energy a usable source remains its hefty cost and investment, says Battaglia
“We have the scientific basis and demonstration to know how this works,” Battaglia says. “But the investment to develop it has not been taken on by any nation at this point.”
But we might see change soon; around the globe, fusion research is taking off. In France, nations studying fusion are coming together to build the world’s first fusion power plant, ITER, expected to be completed sometime in the mid 2020s. It will be experimental and very costly, but Battaglia anticipates this huge investment will open up a whole world of possibilities for the future of fusion.
Battaglia explains that he became interested in researching fusion as early as high school, when he first heard about the scientific and engineering challenges-and potential rewards-of fusion experiments. Battaglia pursued this interest, studying physics at Lehigh University where he graduated in 2003, and later at the University of Wisconsin – Madison where he obtained his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and engineering physics.
He says his interest in science comes from the sense of a greater calling he sees epitomized by the Apollo launch. While other students were interested in the astronauts, he was more interested in learning what was going on in the control room, and the science behind the rockets.
“I was very interested in the idea that there was a grand mission and a large collaboration of people working toward this,” Battaglia says. “Fusion energy fits that bill for me. It takes a lot of people pushing the boundaries towards this important goal of developing an energy source for the future.”