The Swiss Plasma Center (SPC) at the EPFL is an important national and international hub in the development of controlled fusion into a new source of energy. 

The SPC site in Lausanne. Photo: Christian Schlatter/SPC

The SPC is part of the Faculty of Basic Sciences at the EPFL. It employs around 130 people, 110 of them in Lausanne and 20 at PSI in Villigen (Aargau). For years the SPC has had a federal mandate to participate in the European research programme to develop a fusion reactor. This core task is focused on its experimental tokamak facilities (a tokamak is a fusion reactor in which the plasma is confined within a magnetic field inside a torus).

The great potential of nuclear fusion

There are two very different ways of releasing the energy from nuclei. The first is by the fission of heavy atoms such as uranium, which is the concept used by existing nuclear power plants. The second is by combining isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) to form helium in a process known as nuclear fusion. The latter imitates processes that take place in the sun and cause it to release energy.

Controlled nuclear fusion could become a major new source of energy in the future, particularly in view of the growing scepticism about nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion has some major advantages over other energy sources. The basic fuels are non-radioactive and abundantly available all over the world. It is not possible for an accident in the reactor with catastrophic consequences to occur. The reactor itself contains only very small amounts of fuel at any one time, and if the fusion reaction gets out of control it stops immediately. Moreover, the problem of radioactive waste is limited and nuclear fusion, like nuclear fission, is CO2 neutral.

Important contributions to sciences and teaching

The SPC has been actively involved in fundamental research and teaching in the wider field of plasma physics since 1961. The fusion technology groups at PSI were attached to the SPC in 1994. In addition to plasma physics teaching and research, the institute's missions are primarily the development of its expertise and technology transfer.