Lyman Spitzer, Jr., a professor of Astronomy at Princeton University, had for many years been involved in the study of very hot rarefied gases in interstellar space. He was inspired by the fascinating, but erroneous claims of controlled nuclear fusion achieved in Argentina by Ronald Richter, Spitzer. In 1950, he conceived of a plasma being confined in a figure-eight-shaped tube by an externally generated magnetic field, where the ionized hydrogen gas would fuse into helium, releasing energy for the production of power. He called this concept the stellarator, and took this design before the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington. As a result of this meeting and a review of the invention by designated scientists throughout the nation, the stellarator proposal was funded in 1951 as Project Matterhorn. In 1958, this magnetic fusion research was declassified following the 1955 United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. This generated an influx of graduate students eager to learn the "new" physics, which in turn influenced the lab to concentrate more on basic research.
In the 1970s research at the PPPL refocused on the Russian tokamak design when it became evident that it was a more satisfactory containment design than the stellarator. By 1982, the PPPL under the direction of Harold Furth had the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) online, which operated until 1997. Beginning in 1993, TFTR was the first in the world to use 50/50 mixtures of deuterium-tritium. In 1994 it yielded an unprecedented 10.7 megawatts of fusion power.
In 1999, the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), based on the spherical tokamak concept, came online at the PPPL. Laboratory scientists are collaborating with researchers on fusion science and technology at other facilities, both domestic and foreign. Staff are applying knowledge gained in fusion research to a number of theoretical and experimental areas including materials science, solar physics, chemistry, and manufacturing.