PPPL Receives $1.5M from Department of Energy for Fusion Power Project

Nathaniel Fischthe director of the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics and the research team of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has received $1,499,953 in funding on Feb. 14 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) for their project on refining an innovative form of energy from merger.

PPPL research holds great promise for the global effort to develop new types of clean energy technologies.

Fusion energy is a type of nuclear reaction in which two light atomic nuclei combine and create a heavier nucleus. This class of reactions generates heat which can in turn be channeled to produce large amounts of electricity. This innovative mode of energy production generally revolves around the fusion reaction between two distinct forms of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium, or DT fusion. DT fusion produces energy harnessed by a tokamak, a doughnut-shaped magnetic device.

Fisch’s project, titled “Economical Proton-Boron11 Fusion,” optimizes fusion reactions, but with a new twist. Instead of relying on the classic DT fusion reaction, his team’s project involves the fusion between a proton (a hydrogen atom nucleus) and a boron-11 nucleus, the latter of which is made up of five protons. and six neutrons.

Protons and boron-11 particles are not only ubiquitous and affordable, but the fusion of the two particles – known as the pB11 reaction – generates energy without radioactive waste. This is at the heart of what makes Fisch’s work so revolutionary: instead of generating radioactive waste, pB11 reactions produce energy in the form of non-radioactive alpha particles or helium nuclei. In contrast, traditional modes of fusion energy – including DT reactions – produce large amounts of radioactivity, which can have adverse effects on human health and the environment.

Despite the comparative advantages of pB11 reactions, the fusion of protons and boron-11 particles remains fraught with challenges, mainly due to the incredibly high temperatures required to run the reaction. These reaction conditions can be induced under conditions of hundreds of millions of degrees that require huge expenditures of energy, according to Fisch.

“To release fusion energy, one must confine ions hot enough to undergo fusion for a time long enough to recover the energy it took to heat them to high temperatures,” Fisch wrote in an e e-mail to the Daily Princetonian. “The pB11 reaction has a smaller cross section, which means it takes longer to recover the energy invested, which means you have to somehow confine them for longer.”

“On top of that, if the ions are that hot, then the electrons will get just as hot, which means they will radiate in short wavelength light (X-rays) the energy you are trying to confine” , wrote Fisch, noting that high temperatures come with their own set of challenges when it comes to preserving the energy produced by pB11 reactions.

Fisch’s project aims to address this problem by designing fusion reaction designs that minimize the energy losses associated with pB11 reaction conditions while seeking to amplify their reactivity.

For example, the plasma in the tokamak could be rotated so that the boron-11 ions are confined a considerable distance from the lighter protons. This arrangement would allow only the most energetic protons to interact with the boron. These circumstances would also provide a cooler environment for pB11 reactions, while reducing the radioactive loss of harvested energy and potentially opening the way for a cost-effective method of fusing pB11.

Ian Ochs, former Jacobus Fellow and a postdoctoral student in Fisch’s team, has already completed theoretical work for his thesis examining the fundamental theory of wave-particle applications in plasma. While his involvement with the pB11 venture may appear to be a departure from his previous work, Ochs explained that his particular area of ​​expertise remains relevant to the project’s immediate goals.

“[D]Regarding the overall balance of power in a reactor, I will soon return to the fundamental wave concepts developed in my thesis, because the design of our reactor actually involves careful control of rotation to take advantage of centrifugal forces. , as well as the use of waves to manipulate plasma species in other ways, Ochs wrote in an email to “The Prince.”

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Ochs and Fisch emphasized the importance of versatility and interdisciplinary collaboration in achieving the goals of the pB11 project.

“I think one of the fun things about working in this area, especially on an early stage concept, is that you have to be comfortable with a lot of different models and systems – so you’re constantly learning new approaches. and methods. , and looking at new diets,” Ochs wrote in an email to “The Prince.”

Fisch agreed with Ochs, elucidating key differences between the DT and pB11 fusion that warrant an interdisciplinary approach.

“Compared to the DT fusion, the pB11 fusion introduces both very new physical effects to exploit and very new engineering challenges to overcome. The interdisciplinary challenges stem in particular from the needs to efficiently harvest fusion output, which comes in the form of very hot plasma and very short wavelength light,” Fisch wrote.

This research holds great promise for the global search for cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives.

Senior Strategic Advisor for Sustainability Science at PPPL, Emily Carter, said that “[f]usion power has the potential to provide stable electricity to power the world without the intermittency and land requirements of solar and wind farms, and is therefore worth our investment,” according to a university press. Release from March 10, 2022.

Regardless of the promises of the pB11 project, Fisch posed some caveats about future applications of the project’s potential advances in controlling this type of fusion reaction.

“The pB11 reaction is a long shot. It’s very attractive, but it’s really a long shot,” Fisch wrote in an email to “The Prince.”

“The clean energy fueled by the pB11 fusion reaction is unlikely to become a critical source of clean energy in the near-term future,” Fisch added. “However, commercial fusion development through cutting-edge approaches has proven to be neither so easy nor so quick.”

In the meantime, his research group plans to continue making progress toward the goal of running pB11 fusion reactions in an energy-efficient manner.

“Over the timescale over which the main approaches to fusion energy could achieve commercial deployment, there remains a possibility for pB11 fusion to emerge as a disruptive technology,” he wrote.

Amy Ciceu is a senior writer who often covers research and developments related to COVID-19. She is also editor-in-chief of the newsletter. She can be reached at [email protected].

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