Nuclear Fusion and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Featuring Interview with Senior Engineer at the PPPL: Marc-Andre De Looz

 Nuclear Fusion and the PPPL

By: Madison MacKenzie 

The climate crisis is on the rise and innovating efficient energy solutions is key to combating its effects. Fusion energy, for instance, has been a part of the conversation for decades. Today, the fusion community and places like the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory are making great strides towards utilizing fusion energy as a sustainable energy source of the future. Fusion started in the 1920s, when British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington theorized that stars generate their energy from the fusion of hydrogen into helium. However, it was not until December 5th, 2022 that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discovered a way to use nuclear fusion to generate 20% more energy than what was initially required in the reaction. This is the ultimate goal - to get out more than what was put in.  Then, the net energy can be used commercially. With the PPPL latest advances, it seems like a possible future.

According to their website, the PPPL works to “improve fusion through innovations in shaping and plasma composition, and in the creative use of powerful magnets to confine hot plasmas.” Scientists and engineers are working on projects like the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, a fusion device, to make advances in the physics and engineering for a next-step fusion reactor. They are also working on the Lithium Tokamak Experiment - Beta which examines the advantages of lithium on energy confinement in fusion reactors. All of these projects were furthered by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s recent discovery about making fission more of a reality than just a theoretical concept. 

Nuclear fusion works by combining two atoms by use of immense amounts of heat to generate copious amounts of energy. Nuclear fission is perhaps the form of nuclear energy that most are familiar with and that is in use in commercial power plants. Fission, on the other hand, works by gathering heat from a series of atom-splitting chain reactions. While this process is energy-efficient, it has a lower atom economy and produces copious amounts of hazardous radioactive waste. Hence, nuclear energy without these harmful byproducts would be a colossal breakthrough.

As for the future, fusion still has a long way to go. Physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory agree that it will likely be many years before the energy is available for commercial use. This has to do with the U.S’s current goals regarding the climate crisis. The government’s general consensus is that due to the urgency of the situation, it is more valuable to work on improving existing technologies than to begin looking into alternative energy sources. Hundreds of millions of dollars and some serious engineering needs to go into fusion before it is made practical. Nevertheless, fusion provides hope for a cleaner, more energy-efficient future in the long run.

 Thankfully, there are many opportunities for Biotech students to get involved with the PPPL. For example, Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday Lecture series will be back in-person this winter with the first lecture starting on February 4th, 2023. If you are unable to attend in-person, the lecture will also be live broadcasted. On March 16th 2023, the PPPL will host a Women’s S.T.E.M conference for 7th-10th grade girls. This conference will discuss the career possibilities for women as scientists and engineers showcasing different S.T.E.M. fields. For seniors, the PPPL offers internships during the academic year and over the summer for “highly motivated students” to gain lab experience at the PPPL.  If you are interested in plasma physics or simply exploring more areas in STEM, the PPPL is a great resource to check out. 

Interview with Senior Engineer at the PPPL: Marc-Andre De Looz

As previously mentioned, nuclear fusion is an optimistic energy solution that could possibly contribute to solving the climate crisis one day. I had the honor of interviewing a senior engineer at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Mr. Marc-Andre De Looz. Mr. De Looz works on the ITER project, the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world. Through this interview, I found out more about nuclear energy and what exactly it means for the future.

According to Mr. De Looz, the nuclear fusion community is split into 2 groups of people. First, there is a set of older scientists and engineers who have a strong desire to make an impact but are wary of getting the public’s hopes up about nuclear fusion. However, many younger, millennial researchers feel optimistic about fusion as a viable energy solution. Nevertheless, the most frustrating thing for almost any nuclear fusion engineer to hear is that fusion “is not going fast enough” to be a climate solution. In fact, Mr. De Looz explained to me, “Whenever you want I’d love to talk for a half hour on that because that is the most personally frustrating thing I could hear anyone say.” He made the point that although fusion energy has been researched since the 1950s, the climate change crisis was not made known until years later. Fusion research for energy only began in earnest some decades ago. Ergo, we can’t expect it to solve today’s problems just yet. 

Despite these difficulties, there has been significant progress in nuclear fusion research. The recent discovery at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was so encouraging because the reaction produced 3 megawatts of output using only 2 megawatts of input. Before this experiment, the math for net energy production had been proven. However, it had not been demonstrated experimentally in a controlled manner. It has been done in an uncontrolled setting through the hydrogen bomb, but this method was not safe or efficient. This recent experiment was the first time the idea of “more out than in” had been proven in a controlled manner. Marc-Andre De Looz commented, “The question isn’t if anymore, it’s when.” The next step is learning how to control the energy and, one day, make it feasible for commercial use. 

In its way are some common misconceptions. While nuclear fusion does create radioactive products, they stabilize much more quickly than those produced by fission. Fusion releases both heat and neutrons that irradiate what they hit. These irradiated particles will generally lose radioactivity over 5-10 years. In contrast, fission uses atoms that are naturally radioactive, such as uranium or plutonium, which can take up to 30,000 years to become stable. In general, fusion produces much less radiation and becomes stable much more quickly.

To achieve this knowledge and career in nuclear fusion, Mr. De Looz went through quite an interesting journey. In high school, he claims that he was “not the best student” and only applied to one college—Lehigh University. Thankfully, Mr. De Looz gained acceptance to the institution, where he began to realize that his ability to focus was not quite the same as his classmates. Initially he struggled at his studies, but he was able to adapt and went on to receive his graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. After overcoming this adversity, which he would later find out was caused by ADHD, Mr. De Looz would go on to a distinguishing career in engineering

Before coming to the PPPL, he worked at Schlumberger, an oil and gas company, for 13 years. At first, I was rather surprised.  It seemed unusual to go from working in the oil industry to becoming a senior engineer on the cutting edge of renewables. However, Mr. De Looz explained that, in the middle of his career, he asked himself, “What I’m doing right now, does it make me feel good?” After this, Mr. De Looz elected to change his career path, applying to the PPPL. Currently he feels that his profession at the PPPL is meaningful as he works toward helping humanity. 

Overall, I’d like to thank Mr. De Looz for his time and for showing me how promising the world of nuclear fusion is. While the field heats up, Mr. De Looz encourages us at BTHS to keep up to date, keep reading, and stay curious.