The following is from a press release from the Department Of Energy”s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory By Jeanne Jackson DeVoe March 9, 2016
DOE’s Ed Synakowski traces key discoveries in the quest for fusion energy
ITER, is poised to produce more fusion energy than it uses when it is completed in 15 to 20 years,
The path to creating sustainable fusion energy as a clean, abundant and affordable source of electric energy has been filled with “aha moments” that have led to a point in history when the international fusion experiment, ITER, is poised to produce more fusion energy than it uses when it is completed in 15 to 20 years, said Ed Synakowski, associate director of Science for Fusion Energy Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Speaking at a Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture on March 5 at the DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Synakowski traced the discoveries that have led to this moment as well as his own personal journey as a plasma physicist. Synakowski was a researcher on PPPL’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor from 1988 through its closure in 1997. He was head of Research and deputy program director of the National Spherical Torus Experiment at PPPL from 1998 to 2005.
“Getting there, if you think about nuclear fusion, is going to take some moments of discovery, some ‘aha’ moments,” Synakowski said in his talk, “Reimagining the Possible: Scientific Transformations Shaping the Path Towards Fusion Energy.” “We’re taking the process that powers the sun and the stars and bringing it to earth for the benefit of mankind.”
Under a fusion power roadmap developed by European scientists, the next step after ITER would be to build fusion power plants that could begin generating electricity as early as the middle of this century, Synakowski said. Fusion energy would supplement other green sources of electricity, such as wind and power, which have great potential but face the challenge not only of relying on the weather but of storing energy, Synakowski said. “Any robust clean energy infrastructure will benefit greatly from a mix that includes renewables as well as something like fusion,” he said. “You need something that’s clean and has the potential of stable, reliable electric power,” he said.
Wendelstein 7-X a sign of progress
Another sign of progress on the road to fusion energy was the Feb. 3 celebration of the first hydrogen plasma at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald, Germany, Synakowski said. He attended the event along with A.J. Stewart Smith, Princeton University’s vice-president for PPPL, and several PPPL researchers. Synakowski noted that PPPL leads the U.S. collaboration with W7-X scientists, which is vital because the U.S. does not have a stellarator of the same scale as W7-X .
Synakowski explored his own roots as a scientist, culminating in his current position with the Office of Fusion Energy Science, which supports research to develop the scientific basis for fusion energy, and serves as a leading steward of plasma science. The FES has a budget of over $400 million and oversees research at national laboratories, universities, and in private industry. Synakowski was previously the Fusion Energy Program leader and the deputy division leader at large of the Physics Division at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. An American Physical Society and Institute of Physics fellow, he has written more than 160 publications. He received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.
Lyman Spitzer and the first fusion energy device
Synakowski traced the roots of fusion energy to Princeton astrophysicist and PPPL founder Lyman Spitzer who led a classified program called “Project Matterhorn” in the 1950s and was the first to come up with the idea of creating fusion energy in a device he called a “stellarator.” Spitzer’s device had the same basic elements of modern fusion devices, Synakowski said. It used an ionized gas called a plasma for fuel and had magnets on the outside to create a magnetic field to contain the plasma and keep it away from the walls. Spitzer believed that if the plasma could be heated to 200 million degrees Centigrade, he could create a fusion reaction.
But the stellarator was not the only type of fusion experiment in the world. The British created a device called a “pinch” and the Russians invented a doughnut-shaped device called a “tokamak.” The Russians announced they had achieved an electron temperature of up to 20 million degrees Centigrade in the plasmas in their fusion experiments and the results convinced many researchers around the world that the tokamak was a better way to confine the plasma to create fusion energy. After the stellarator produced disappointing results in the 1950s and 1960s, many laboratories worldwide, including the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which was renamed in 1961, followed the example of the Russians.
Synakowski was a researcher at PPPL during some of the “aha” moments at PPPL’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), which operated from 1982 to 1997 and was then the biggest tokamak in the U.S. and the third biggest in the world. Synakowski showed the audience a picture of himself, along with Mike Zarnstorff, now PPPL’s deputy director of research, Richard Hawryluk, now the had of ITER and Tokamaks at PPPL; and several other scientists in the control room of TFTR on Dec. 9, 1993. That’s when the facility achieved a world-record 6.3 million watts of fusion power with a 50-50 mix of deuterium and tritium. In June of 1994, TFTR would generate headlines worldwide when it produced 10.7 million watts of fusion power, Synakowski said.
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. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. 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).