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On Promoting Plasma Physics Research in the Indian Universities

During the early days of the Plasma Physics Programme, the forerunner of the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR), it became apparent that capacity building in universities in plasma physics was essential to generate the human resource necessary for the development of future programmes. The first major effort in initiating Universities into plasma physics research took place in 1984 when the Thrust Area Programme committee of the Department of Science & Technology initiated a programme to fund universities on nucleating plasma physics experiments. This came to be known as the Satellite Research Project, satellite to the main project of PPP. Many different university groups, which are at present active in plasma physics, can trace their genealogy back to this initiation.

In 2006 India became a partner in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project to build the world’s first fusion reactor. ITER participation has three aspects, all of which will make an impact on our future programmes.

Delivering ITER Procurement Packages

One aspect of immediate relevance is the fulfilment of the contract for the ITER procurement package. This means building and supplying advanced tokamak components to international specifications. When ITER becomes operational, we will also have the opportunity to participate in burning plasma experiments. Both of these aspects will help us to learn a host of reactor-relevant technologies. Indian industry also would be upgraded through its contractual role in actually engineering and assembling these parts in the ITER machine. As a member of the ITER project, India will learn 10% of ITER technologies through the supply of the hardware.

The ‘Balance of ITER’ will have to be learnt through a programme covering core fusion technologies. This came to be known as the National Fusion Programme (NFP). These technologies cover fusion materials, fusion neutronics, RF and microwave power systems, power engineering, data acquisition and control systems, plasma diagnostics, robotics, superconducting magnets, cryogenic technology etc. This programme will ensure that the country would have some manpower with competence in all aspects of fusion science and technology.

Tokamak Blanket Module

Another important input to fusion reactor technology is what we learn by building the Tokamak Blanket Module, where the fusion neutrons will be exploited both for heat recovery and for tritium breeding. Both of these aspects would substantially influence our programme options and will enable us to shorten the time frame of our programme. Participation in ITER brings the possibility of building a demo reactor closer to reality.

ITPA as a Driver

ITPA (International Tokamak Physics Activity) is an ongoing international activity pursuing the physics of burning plasmas. India can join ITPA being an ITER partner. The ITPA’s charter is to provide: • Validated experimental data according to an agreed format; • Analyzed results of experiments to advance understanding of fusion plasma physics; • The organization, management, and updating of qualified databases; • Theoretical models and simulation results to explain and reproduce experimental results; • Studies of fusion plasma performance in burning plasma devices; and • Identification and resolution of key diagnostics issues which might arise both in plasma control and in the analysis of a burning plasma experiment.

In broad terms, the aim was to set up programmes for ‘Balance of ITER’ technologies, partner with industries and develop human resources. The NFP programme is designed to extend and complement the IPR efforts in all areas of fusion science and technology. Internal fine-tuning of the proposals and having IPR personnel act as coordinators ensure this.

The programme clearly is of a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional character, requiring expertise from a variety of fields, ranging from the frontiers of fundamental science to advanced technologies nucleated in universities, academic institutions, national laboratories, and industries that will evolve into a community of fusion scientists and engineers.

How do we generate such a community?

An obvious target is the group of plasma physicists who are working in other institutions and in other areas of plasma physics like space plasmas etc. A less obvious, but very desirable target is the number of good physicists or mathematicians already active in other fields in experiments, theory or modelling. They can be attracted to doing fusion theory or modelling by educating them on the complementarities between their areas of expertise and what would be expected of them in the NFP. The second method of motivating them is by effectively conveying to them the intellectual excitement of working on these problems.

A unique feature of NFP is its engagement with the industry to take up critical technology development efforts. The development of cryopanels using forming technology and the successful development of cryopumps and cryosorption materials are good examples of the benefit of such collaboration.

The Board of Research in Fusion Science and Technology (BRFST) was conceived as the agency which will execute these functions and advise IPR on financial assistance to universities, academic institutions, national laboratories, and industries. The charter of BRFST was to promote the nucleation and growth of research, development, and training of manpower in the field of fusion science and technology in universities and educational institutions through the award of research grants, support of training programmes, conferences and symposia and promotion of activities to increase collaboration between academia and the Institute for Plasma Research. Ravi Kumar established the administrative framework of BRFST for funding universities and educational institutions in basic research and human resource development in fusion science and technology.

One of the mandates of NFP was manpower development so that when the country is ready to launch its own fusion power programme, we will have enough trained manpower available. In addition to the Ph D programmes, NFP offered Internships to students undertaking MSc/M. Tech courses to do their project work on areas mandated by NFP. Over 10 years, more than 200 students availed of this fellowship, which had become very popular amongst PG students.

Another operational aspect was to conduct periodic discussions and subsequent updates of the goals of NFP and define new thrust areas of R&D that need to be supported. Theme meetings involving the collaborators to assess the progress of several projects under a specific R&D area. This not only helped NFP provide a clear roadmap for R&D in that area but also encouraged healthy competition amongst collaborators. Several such theme meetings were conducted and so also were regular visits by NFP representatives to laboratories where projects funded by NFP were being undertaken.

In a short period of 10 years, BRFST and later, the Plasma & Fusion Research Committee (PFRC) funded over 200 projects with a total budget of ~ Rs. 55 Crores in a variety of areas of R&D that were of prime interest to IPR’s research goals. The beneficiaries of these funds ranged from Universities, Colleges, R&D institutions of CSIR, and Institutes like IITs and NITs across the country.

I would like to record my deep appreciation of the contribution made by a large number of people in making NFP a success. Significant contributions were made by Dr Ravi Kumar, Prof. P. K. Chattopadhyay, Dr A. K. Ray, Prof. Amit Roy and Dr T. Jayakumar.

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