The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently signed an agreement to forge a partnership to strengthen education, training, and outreach programs in nuclear fusion research all over the world.
Steve Cowley, PPPL director, and Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, signed the agreement at the 66th IAEA General Conference on Sept. 28 in Vienna.
The goal of the program is to help train the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians who can contribute to develop fusion energy as a clean, green and plentiful source of electricity, Cowley said. The IAEA, which is based in Vienna, is the world organization for intergovernmental cooperation in the nuclear field. It has 175 member states.
“I think this agreement with the IAEA is really an interesting step forward,” Cowley said. “They’re looking for the Lab to provide leadership in helping other countries develop fusion programs.”
Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and to the IAEA, and Najat Mokhtar, deputy director general of the IAEA and head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, also attended the event, which was sponsored by the IAEA and the DOE.
“We are witnesses to rapid changes in the fusion research landscape. The attention in fusion research and development is shifting to the remaining challenges of generating fusion electricity,” said Chudakov. “The IAEA looks forward to a successful partnership with PPPL and to great results of our joint work.”
Cowley credited PPPL’s Science Education office with spearheading the partnership. The effort was led by Arturo Dominguez, and Matteo Barbarino, a nuclear plasma fusion specialist in the Physics Section of the Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences, at the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, both of whom attended the conference; along with Andrew Zwicker, the long-time head of Science Education who is now head of the Strategic Relations Department.
Fusion energy education and training programs could reach countries like Thailand, Cowley said. It is starting fusion energy research and will soon have its first tokamak, which is being constructed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “PPPL’s Science Education is expanding, and I think that’s a good thing because they’ve done a remarkable job for the Lab. They’ve come up with great programs that are really impactful.” The agreement is fully supported by the DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences, Cowley said.
“It really expands on the international mission that we already have,” Dominguez said. “This is just another way of strengthening those existing collaborations and opening more doors and creating more points of access to the work that we’re doing.”
“There’s a lot of excitement and interest right now in fusion and the importance of workforce development is coming into focus,” Barbarino said. “We all realize for fusion to be successful we’re going to need trainers and well-educated fusion scientists and engineers, so this partnership will help achieve that.”
“We’re delighted to have cooperation with PPPL because Princeton is a leader in education and PPPL is one of the leading fusion laboratories worldwide,” Barbarino added.
The agreement focuses on partnerships to offer hands-on and remote workshops on fusion energy, as well as fellowship and internships in the field, outreach activities focused on careers in fusion energy. It also calls for partnering on remote plasma experiments such as PPPL’s Remote Glow Discharge Experiment (RGDX) and on web-based fusion energy device simulators such as PPPL’s Interactive Plasma Physics Experience (IPPEX)
PPPL and the IAEA have already begun discussing how they can support technical workshops in Latin America and Africa next summer, as well as the possibility of opening PPPL’s summer workshop in fusion and plasma energy, which is virtual, to a more international audience, Dominguez said.
Dominguez has been working with Zwicker and Barbarino on the partnership concept for more than a year. Barbarino said the IAEA approached PPPL because of the two virtual science education programs developed by PPPL: IPPEX, a software program that simulates a tokamak, and the RGDX, which allows users to access a real plasma experiment from anywhere in the world via their computers. One lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, was “how important distance learning can be as a tool. The virtual tokamak is something we haven’t seen in fusion.”
IPPEX was “one of the things that started the conversation,” Dominguez recalled, “how we could repackage it or create a focus of it that’s more international.”
The IAEA will partner on developing IPPEX to possibly include simulations of other fusion devices such as stellarators and by developing a user manual and other supporting material for the device.
The IAEA and PPPL would also partner on internships and fellowships. The IAEA has internships at its Vienna headquarters and PPPL offers internships through DOE- and PPPL-sponsored programs.
"Realizing fusion energy spans more than one generation,” Barbarino said. “Training the future generations of fusion scientists and engineers is essential because they’re going to be the ones operating fusion power plants.”