An experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory produced a 1-million-ampere plasma current with a new reactor last month, setting a world record for that type of reactor and opening the door for further research into the creation of fusion power.
"What this means is that we are now ready to begin experimentation on the machine," said PPPL spokesman Anthony DeMeo, who added that a larger reactor could be constructed in several years if these tests are successful.
The PPPL is funded by the Department of Energy and is managed by the University. Its mission is to work toward a viable fusion energy source.
The PPPL had been hurt by budget and staff cuts in the early and mid-1990s, but recently has been on-budget and working ahead of schedule.
The experiment – which is formally known as the National Spherical Torus Experiment, or NSTX – made its recent achievement nine months earlier than expected U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, who was previously assistant director at the PPPL, worked in his new job to advocate funding for the program. "The scientific success and the cost-effectiveness of this experiment demonstrate that the PPPL is at the forefront of its research and continues to be the greatest lab of its kind in the world," he said.
The new reactor, known as a spherical torus device, replaced the PPPL's Tokamak reactor, which was dismantled in 1997.
Physicists believe that the new configuration may have significant advantages over the Tokamak that could lead to a more cost-effective path for development of fusion energy.
The NSTX was a "proof-of-principle" experiment designed to show that the machine worked correctly and worked well, DeMeo said.
"It was designed to prove the efficacy of the geometry. It could lead to smaller, more economical test reactors," he said NSTX Program Director Martin Peng said he hopes the NSTX will generate good results over the next few years. If it does, he said, "NSTX will have an impact on the design of future devices. These machines would extend the temperatures, densities and other plasma parameters to the levels necessary for fusion energy production."