PHOTO: ELLE STARKMAN

Despite a squeeze on federal funding for domestic fusion-energy research, government support remains solid for a $94 million upgrade of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s biggest and most important fusion project, the National Spherical Torus ­Experiment (NSTX).

The work will enhance the position of the NSTX as the world’s most powerful spherical tokamak, a device that houses extremely hot and supercharged gases called plasmas that can create fusion energy. With the relatively compact NSTX, researchers at PPPL are trying to prove the principle of how fusion energy would work by sustaining long-term plasma reactions to generate continuous energy for electrical power. 

“NSTX works for a few seconds, but we can tell a lot even in that short duration about how a much longer reaction would work,” said Jonathan Menard *98, the project’s program director.

Cuts to other programs point to a precarious state of fusion research in the United States. MIT’s C-Mod project — one of three major fusion experiments in the U.S. along with NSTX and San Diego-based General Atomics’ fusion facility — is being shut down indefinitely due to budget cuts by the Department of Energy (DOE). 

The tightening of domestic fusion-research funding results from pressure to reduce the federal budget deficit and the U.S. commitment to support an international collaboration that is building the world’s largest fusion reactor, called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), in France. 

Aside from the NSTX project, funding for other PPPL projects will shrink by about 10 percent over the next two years, according to lab director Stewart Prager. PPPL, one of 10 national science laboratories supported by the DOE’s Office of Science, has been operated by the University since it was created in 1951.

PPPL is receiving $79 million from the Energy Department this year; that amount is expected to drop to $71.8 million in the coming year, though Congress has not completed work on the federal budgets for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. A reduction of that size would cost about 36 jobs at PPPL, leaving a workforce of about 400, lab officials said. Smaller experiments, including research on how plasma processes occur in the cosmos and theoretical simulations of plasma, already have been hit hard, Prager said. 

“Other nations are ramping up their domestic fusion programs, not ramping them down,” he said. “The U.S. should do the same, considering how important fusion is.”

A fusion-energy source, he said, would be essentially inexhaustible, clean (producing no greenhouse gases), safe (with no chance of catastrophic accidents), available to all nations (without dependence on local natural resources), and small in its land usage. “The attributes of fusion are nearly ideal,” Prager said.

An offshoot of research at the lab is a portable technology called MINDS (Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System), commercialized by New Jersey-based InSitech. In seconds, the system can detect low levels of nuclear material, the kind used in “dirty bombs,” in public places. MINDS has been tested in high-traffic public locations and is being used at the Port of Oakland. Prager said that such spinoffs are encouraged as the lab increases the scope of its research in both basic and applied science. 

The 30-month NSTX upgrade, which will double the electric current and magnetic field, is about 60 percent complete; it is on schedule and within budget, Prager said. Earlier this year, the Fusion Sciences Advisory Committee, which advises the DOE on fusion-energy research, described the experiment as critical. 

The upgrade “will provide ample research opportunities for five to 10 years’ worth of work at least,” said Michael Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the lab. 

A major concern stemming from the domestic research budget cuts is the loss of seasoned plasma experts and young physicists needed to continue the research in the next decades. 

“If we eat into our base program too much, we won’t have the scientific means to take advantage of ITER once it is finished,” Menard said.