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Renamed plasma center expands research

With a new name and a renewed sense of mission, the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) -- formerly the Plasma Fusion Center -- is well positioned to take advantage of increased federal interest in energy research and development.

"The added word 'science' better reflects the diversity of research that is being carried out at the Center," said Professor of Physics Miklos Porkolab, director of the PSFC. "Our long-range plans call not only for a diversification in plasma science and related technology research, but also for focusing the emphasis on science in our fusion-oriented research activities, in accord with the recent shift in the US magnetic fusion program's near-term emphasis from a reactor development goal to a fusion science program with a strong concept improvement element. Our very long-term goal still remains the development of an environmentally attractive and commercially competitive energy source for mankind."

When Princeton University shut down its Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor earlier this year, MIT's Alcator C-Mod became the largest tokamak fusion experiment on the East Coast, rivaled in the United States only by the DIII-D in San Diego. Many of Princeton's scientists, experimental apparatus and graduate research projects have shifted to MIT.

The Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences redirected $2.3 million of funds for Princeton projects and personnel to MIT, as well as $1.1 million originally budgeted for the University of Texas. In addition, DOE funds for the Alcator project at MIT were boosted by $1 million to $12.5 million.

Two years ago, Congress cut $4.5 million from the Alcator program. As a result, more than a dozen key scientific and technical personnel were laid off, experimental run time was curtailed and major upgrades to the facility were postponed.

"If the fusion budget holds up next year, or better yet, increases as recommended by recent national advisory panels, the Alcator program is earmarked for further funding increases which we hope will enable us to achieve full experimental operations in fiscal 1999," said Professor Porkolab, who has more than 30 years of experience in his field.

"When we consider the presence of visiting professors, research scientists and students from other universities and laboratories, the PSFC is truly becoming a national center of excellence in plasma science and fusion research."

Reflecting the change in name, the PSFC has expanded its scientific research interests, sharing a five-year, $5 million DOE grant with Columbia University to construct a Levitated Dipole Experiment (LDX) at MIT's Nabisco Laboratory.

"Assuming favorable experimental results and progress in superconducting technology, this concept may lead to a more attractive and economical source of fusion power," said Professor Porkolab. "Meanwhile, we can contribute to a better understanding of space plasma physics."

While these activities were taking place, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) urged increased financial support for energy-related projects. In a September 30 report entitled "Federal Energy Research and Development for the Challenges of the 21st Century," PCAST said, "The inadequacy of current energy R&D is especially acute in relation to the challenge of responding prudently and cost-effectively to the risk of global climatic change from society's greenhouse-gas emissions, of which the most important is carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels. Much of the new R&D needed to respond to this challenge would also be responsive to other challenges."

The PSFC is ready for the challenge, Professor Porkolab said. "Our program has always been scientifically oriented, but with a strong technology element. We are now intensifying our efforts to further develop the underlying science that will help us understand the physics of high-temperature plasmas. Ultimately, this effort should lead to a better fusion reactor concept."

The suggested amounts devoted to fusion would go from $230 million in fiscal 1998 to $250 million in 1999, and rise in steps to $328 million by 2003. Congress reduced the budget for fusion research from $369 million in 1995 to $225 million in 1997.

President Charles M. Vest served on a special PCAST panel that prepared the report on research and development. His deputy on that group was Jefferson Tester, the H.P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Energy Laboratory. President Vest and Institute Professor Mario Molina are both on PCAST.

The Columbia-MIT LDX will test a new concept for magnetic confinement of high-temperature plasma. The concept, first proposed by Osaka University's Professor Akira Hasegawa when he was an adjunct professor at Columbia, mimics Jupiter's magnetosphere, first observed by the Voyager spacecraft in 1979. The principal investigators for the LDX are Columbia Professor of Applied Physics Michael Mauel, an MIT graduate, and MIT senior research scientist Jay Kesner, a Columbia graduate.

"Plasma confinement in a dipole magnetic field as observed in planetary magnetospheres represents the only naturally occurring confinement of high-pressure plasmas [plasmas having pressures equal to the magnetic field pressure]," said Dr. Kesner. "It may prove to be ideal for application to advanced (neutron-free) fusion fuel cycles. This approach is new to magnetic fusion research and presents a fascinating new challenge to our understanding of plasma physics."

The experiment involves the magnetic levitation of a superconducting ring 1m in outer diameter that will float by means of supporting magnetic fields for hours in a large (4.5m diameter) vacuum chamber. The superconducting ring and its control system will be designed and installed by PSFC's Fusion Engineering and Technology Division, headed by Dr. Joseph Minervini.

After the Nabisco Lab structure is completed, Columbia scientists will join their MIT colleagues in carrying out the experimental program. "First we will bring Jupiter's plasma torus into the laboratory," said Professor Porkolab. "We'll do the sun later."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 10, 1997.

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