Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory spins off new technologies

Wednesday, Sep 21, 2016

Located three miles from Princeton University’s main campus, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) is the nation’s premiere fusion energy research center. It also is a wellspring of technological innovations that have the potential to benefit society.

These technologies arise from the physics and engineering research that scientists at PPPL, which is managed by Princeton, conduct as part of the quest to develop fusion energy, a safe and environmentally attractive method of providing electricity using the same energy-generating process that occurs in the sun. Through PPPL’s technology-transfer office, promising discoveries can be transferred to private industry, academic institutions and other federal laboratories for development. “The technological discoveries that come from magnetic fusion research find applications in areas ranging from ones you might predict, such as aerospace and defense, to ones that might surprise you, such as improved food
sterilization,” said Laurie Bagley, head of technology transfer, patents and publications at PPPL.

Three of the technology spinoffs from PPPL are:


Short for “Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System,” MINDS is a cost-effective, compact technology for scanning moving vehicles, luggage and other containers for signals associated with radiological weapons, also sometimes called dirty bombs. Developed by PPPL scientist Charles Gentile and colleagues, MINDS could be deployed as a security measure at airports, tollbooths, shipping ports, festivals and in subways and other transportation systems to ensure public safety.

The technology detects several types of radioactive signals, including X-rays, neutrons, and soft gamma and gamma rays. The system recognizes distinctive energy signatures, or “fingerprints,” and compares them to the energy spectra associated with the radiological materials used in weapons.

Gentile’s collaborators include Andrew Carpe, PPPL technical assistant; Steve Langish, PPPL technical supervisor; PPPL software engineers Kenny Silber and Bill Davis; Dana Mastrovito, a former PPPL software engineer who is now a doctoral student at Rutgers University; and Jason Perry, who earned his master’s degree in computer science from Princeton in 2004.

Egg pasteurization

A novel method for rapidly pasteurizing eggs in the shell could enhance the safety of the United States’ food supply. Current federal regulations do not require eggs sold in stores to be pasteurized, yet these eggs are often consumed raw or undercooked and cause more than 100,000 cases of salmonella
illness each year in the United States. Pasteurization of shell eggs could reduce the number of salmonella cases by up to 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Researchers led by PPPL engineer Christopher Brunkhorst developed a method of using radio-frequency energy to transmit heat through the shell and pasteurize the yolk while the eggs rotate in a stream of cool water that protects them against overheating. Then, the eggs are bathed in hot water to ensure full pasteurization of the yolk and white.

Brunkhorst collaborated with David Geveke, lead scientist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, and Andrew Bigley, an engineering technician recently retired from the USDA.

Advanced liquid centrifuge

Today’s centrifuges are the workhorses of science, used to purify and separate everything from DNA to weapons-grade uranium. Centrifuges also are used in industry to remove toxic compounds from industrial wastewater, extract oil from oil sands and even to clarify apple juice.

PPPL scientists led by Hantao Ji, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton, have invented a new type of centrifuge that can segregate a mixture of fluids into separate parts based on differences in density, while also combining two or more fluids to produce a uniform mixture or to enhance the rate of a chemical reaction. The advanced liquid centrifuge accomplishes these tasks by having both an inner cylinder and an outer cylinder that rotate independently of each other to create a sheared flow in
the fluid. By injecting fluids at precise times and manipulating the rotation speed of both cylinders, the centrifuge can mix and then separate various ingredients without interruption in ways that are not available in today’s single-cylinder centrifuges.

Ji collaborated with PPPL scientists Adam Cohen, Philip Efthimion and Eric Edlund.

(Video courtesy of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey)

For more information about technologies from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, contact Laurie Bagley.