Writing about Fusion

Hi! I’m Paige, and I’m an undergraduate at Princeton interested in physics and science communications. This January, I got to work as an intern here at Princeton Satellite Systems. These past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the fusion-related projects PSS is working on, such as their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor concept and plans for a space propulsion engine.

My first task was to write a four-page report on the PFRC, including its design, market demand, and development timeline. I knew very little about fusion coming into this internship, so first I had to learn all I could about the process that powers the sun and has the potential to supply the earth with clean, practically limitless energy.

Various types of fusion reactors are under development by companies and coalitions all over the world; they differ in the reactors they use and their methods of confining and heating plasma. ITER, for instance, is an example of a tokamak under construction in France; it uses superconducting magnets to confine plasma so that the reaction of tritium and deuterium can occur. 

The PFRC, currently in the second stage of experiments at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, uses radio frequency waves to create a rotating magnetic field that spins and heats the plasma inside, which is contained by closed magnetic field lines in a field-reversed configuration resulting from the opposition of a background solenoidal magnetic field to the field created by the rotating plasma current. The fusion reaction within the PFRC is that of helium-3 and deuterium, which offers multiple advantages over reactions involving tritium. Compared with other fusion reactors, the PFRC is incredibly compact.  It will be about the size of a minivan, 1/1000th the size of ITER; this compactness makes it ideal for portable or remote applications.

After learning about the design and market applications of the PFRC, I created a four page brochure about PFRC, writing for a general audience. I included the basics of the reactor design and its advantages over other reactors, as well as market estimates and the research and development timeline. I went on to write four page brochures about PSS’s Direct Fusion Drive engine, which will use PFRC technology for space propulsion purposes, and GAMOW, the program under which PSS is collaborating on developing various power electronics for fusion reactors.

These past few weeks have been quite informative to me, and I realized how much I loved writing about science and technology! I learned all about fusion, and I especially loved learning the details of the PFRC reactor design. To summarize the design, research, and development of the PFRC and other technologies within four page flyers, I had to learn how to write about technology and research comprehensively and engagingly for a general audience, which improved my science communication skills.

The Space Show appearance

It was my pleasure to appear on David Livingston’s “The Space Show” radio program last night, now available as a podcast:


People from all over the country called and emailed in their questions about fusion and fusion-propelled spaceflight, and we had a great discussion! David has been running this educational program for 20 years and there are almost 4000 archived episodes covering a wide range of space topics. Author David Brin, whom I met during my NASA NIAC fellowship, is going to be on next week!

So have listen and add to the conversation on The Space Show website!

FISO Talk: Fusion Drive for Rapid Deep Space Propulsion

On May 29, 2019, Ms. Thomas gave an invited talk to the Future In-Space Operations working group on Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) for deep space propulsion. The slides and talk audio are available from FISO’s online archive here. The group hosts weekly telecon seminars to discuss upcoming technologies and their potential impact on space operations.

Our talk introduces Direct Fusion Drive, explains how it is based on the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC), and reviews some potential missions. There are summaries of the key physics points enabling the PFRC and the computational and modeling tools we apply. We conclude with the roadmap to spaceflight, including the supporting technologies that will be required for successful space engines, like lightweight space radiators.

We hope you enjoy this talk on DFD!

Job Opening for a Plasma Physicist

We are looking for a plasma physicist to join our staff in support our new ARPA-E contract on the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC) experiment.

Candidates should be interested in both theoretical and experimental work in plasma physics related to nuclear fusion power generation. Familiarity with low- and high-temperature plasma diagnostics is desirable. Background on any magnetic fusion device is also desirable. The position includes:

  • Help run experiments on the PFRC-2 (located at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) and analyze data.
  • Analytical and numerical work, including MHD simulations and PiC simulations.
  • Numerical modeling of plasmas.
  • Work in other areas at PSS including control, estimation, machine learning and orbit dynamics.
  • Programming in MATLAB, Python and C/C++.
  • Write proposals and come up with new topics for proposals including SBIR and STTR proposals.

Requirements include:

  • Ph.D in plasma physics (may be a recent or 2019 grad)
  • Must be a US citizen.

If you are interested, send your resumé to info@psatellite.com

Phase II NASA STTR on superconducting magnets selected!

We are pleased to announce that our Phase II STTR proposal, “Superconducting Coils for Small Nuclear Fusion Rocket Engines,” was one of 20 selected for award by NASA in this year’s round! The full list of winners is posted on NASA’s website.

Our briefing chart prepared as part of the proposal is shown below:Briefing chart

We will be building a testbed with a split-pair superconducting coil (two windings with a gap between them) and performing experiments to assess the impact of operating the magnets in the vicinity of the FRC plasma. Applications of the technology go beyond fusion reactors, for example science payloads and high-performance motors for hybrid electric aircraft.

PFRC Paper Accepted to Physics of Plasmas

Our colleague Eugene Evans of PPPL has had his paper, “Particle-in-cell studies of fast-ion slowing-down rates in cool tenuous magnetized plasma,” accepted for publication in Physics of Plasmas. The article is tentatively scheduled for the April 2018 issue. A quote from the reviewer:

The paper … is an interesting, well-written paper that uses PIC to build upon earlier direct numerical simulation methods based on molecular dynamics. The authors present a clearly written discussion of the scaling properties of slowing down theory to support their numerical studies. The authors do a very good job describing the simulation approach they take… Of particular note in the paper is the good agreement between their numerical data and the sub-thermal model even when the effective computational log(lambda) was on the order of 1…  the authors did not stop with their results but instead applied their conclusions to the FRC reactor, predicting that the neutron production rate is 100 times lower than a conventional DT Tokamak.

This paper is key to the low radiation levels claimed for our PFRC design, and hence the Direct Fusion Drive. The fast ion slowing-down is what causes the tritium and other fusion ash to exit the machine. You can view a preprint on arXiv.

We will post again once the paper is published and available from Physics of Plasmas.

Living Universe Documentary

Back in early September, PSS and PPPL were visited by a film crew from Australia. The project? Living Universe: An Interstellar Voyage, which will include a feature documentary, a 4 episode TV miniseries, and a podcast. The documentary touches all aspects of an interstellar mission, from exoplanets to astrobiology, including transportation – which is where our fusion engine work comes in. The film is in production now and the producers expect to launch in late 2018.

The PFRC experiment at PPPL is the only hardware the documentary team could find with a path to fusion propulsion! Dr. Cohen was able to run the machine for the film crew, and both Mike and Stephanie were interviewed extensively. We discussed the rocket equation and the fundamental speed of fusion products, and how DFD moderates that speed with additional propellant to produce higher thrust. For an interstellar voyage, DFD would have to be much, much lighter than we know how to make it today – but who knows what innovations in magnets are possible in the future!

How will you be able to watch the film and TV series? The film should do the rounds of museums and IMAX theaters. The TV series will be available for streaming from Curiosity Stream, a service which specializes in science, history, tech & nature documentaries. We will post an update when we have a firm release date!


Fusion Power Associates Meeting

I attended the 2017 Fusion Power Associates meeting in Washington, D.C. on December 6 and 7. Fusion Power Associates is a non-profit, tax-exempt research and educational foundation, providing timely information on the status of fusion development and other applications of plasma science and fusion research.

The annual meeting brought together experts in all areas of nuclear fusion research including scientists and engineers from ITER, the Princeton Plasma Physics LaboratoryTAE TechnologiesGeneral Atomic and many others! The meeting gave a great overview of the state of nuclear fusion power generation. We learned that ITER is 50% complete and on its way to first plasma in 2025. Planning has begun on Demo, the follow-on to ITER.

The Joint European Torus plans a D-T campaign in 2019 and hopes to set new fusion benchmarks. We learned about Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research  (KStar). It has achieved longer than 70 second pulses in H-mode and has suppressed ELM for more than 34 seconds. KStar has in-vessel control coils.

There were several speakers from the University of Rochester along with colleagues from the national laboratories talking about advances in laser compression of fuel pellets. This work is for nuclear weapons research but could be applied to inertial confinement fusion.

I gave the last talk of the meeting on Princeton Satellite Systems and PPPL’s work on DFD, nuclear fusion propulsion for spacecraft.