Princeton Plasma Physics Lab Wins $12 Million Grant

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has won a $12.25 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop computer codes to simulate a key component of the plasma that fuels fusion energy.

The five-year award could produce software that helps researchers design and operate facilities to create fusion as a clean and abundant source of energy for generating electricity. The grant comes from the Department of Energy’s scientific discovery through advanced computing program.

“The DOE grant is terrific for the Laboratory because it allows us to work in the forefront of the simulation of the edge region of fusion plasmas,” Princeton Plasma Physics Lab Director Stewart Prager said. “This code could go a long way toward modeling and understanding this pivotal region.”

The grant will go to the lab’s Center for Edge Physics Simulation, headed by C.S. Chang, a principal research physicist at the laboratory. The award will fund an advanced computer simulation of the complex and turbulent conditions at the edge of the plasma — the hot, electrically charged gas that scientists confine inside magnetic fields in facilities called tokamaks.  Controlling the little-understood plasma edge is crucial for maintaining the confinement so that fusion can take place, scientists say.

The task of confinement has many everyday parallels, scientist explain.

“If you want to confine soup, the bowl should not leak, wobble or be broken by the heat,” said Chang, who joined the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in  2011 from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.

The edge physics simulation team  consists of leading physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists from 11 U.S. research institutions, together with Princeton Plasma Physics Lab participants. Collaborating institutions include: the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Brown University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Texas at Austin, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at San Diego, Columbia University, Lehigh University, and Rutgers University.

The team will work on Titan, one of the world’s fastest scientific supercomputers, which is housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Titan is expected to have a peak performance of more than 20 petaflops—the technical term for a million billion calculations a second. The machine will have the combined power of well over two million home computers and the ability to perform in one day what a single desktop device would take more than 5,000 years to complete.  The team also will work on Hopper, a  supercomputer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The new code will seek to model the harsh pressure, temperature, density and flow conditions that mark the edge of intensely hot fusion plasmas, and cause them to grow unstable, leak from their magnetic confinement and damage tokamak walls.  Researchers will test their model against data gleaned from actual fusion experiments to see if the model’s predictions are accurate.

“If the code proves to be validated for all the relevant aspects of today’s experiments, then we would have the confidence to project it for the future,” Chang said.

The validated model could serve as a guide to developers of next-generation fusion facilities, which will need to confine hot plasmas at temperatures of more than 100 million degrees and cope with extreme heat fluxes against their walls.