Princeton engineers have won a highly competitive grant of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to collaborate with the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in order to tackle materials science challenges in the creation of fusion energy.

One key challenge is how to contain the hot plasma that fuels fusion power — maintaining the so-called “star in a jar.”  The hot plasma “star” tends to react with the so-called  “jar” (a torus-shaped device that uses a magnetic field to confine plasma)  in a way that that halts the energy-producing fusion reaction.

The new DOE grant will focus on the science and engineering behind using liquid metals as an interface between the hot plasma and the interior surface of the torus-shaped device containing it. The Princeton Engineering proposal is unusual in that it addresses the materials science challenge of plasma-facing components at all scales and includes a dream team of researchers whose expertise ranges from atoms to macroscopic fluid flows.

“How do you maintain the plasma so that you can turn it into a real source of energy?” said Howard Stone, the lead principal investigator of the grant.  “This research addresses fundamental science questions.”

Stone is an expert in the field of fluid dynamics and his laboratory researches thin-film flows along curved boundaries and flows in porous materials. Co-PIs are Emily Carter, director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, who studies quantum mechanical simulations at the atomic scale;  Thanos Panagiotopoulos and Pablo Debenedetti, theorists who employ classical simulations at the molecular level; and Bruce Koel and Steve Bernasek, who conduct experiments on the surface science of metals. PPPL senior collaborators Robert Goldston, Richard Majeski, and Charles Skinner helped Princeton researchers prepare the grant application.

Bruce Koel, who has been working with PPPL scientists on liquid metal issues, said he expected that the grant would “lead to new synergies that will be essential to solving the hard, interdisciplinary materials science challenges facing fusion energy.” Koel has been experimenting with lithium metal films (see photo above), which are being used at PPPL and elsewhere as a liquid metal lining, with promising results.

The Princeton proposal was one of four selected for funding out of a field of about 80 applicants. It grew out of discussions beginning two years ago with Stewart Prager, the director of PPPL, who  wrote an excellent op-ed last year in the New York Times explaining the need for fusion research.

Photo by Elle Starkman, courtesy PPPL.

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