PPPL launches project to build the Princeton Plasma Innovation Center: a state-of-the-art office and laboratory building

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe, Communications Princeton Plasma Physics Lab
Aug. 1, 2022

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) moved forward with plans to build the Princeton Plasma Innovation Center (PPIC), a new state-of-the-art office and laboratory building and the first new building on campus in 50 years. The project kicked off during a meeting with architects on July 8.

Tim Meyer, deputy director for operations, said one of the things that attracted him to take the job at PPPL was the prospect of building PPIC. “It tells our staff and the community that something is happening,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a new era for our lab.”

Jon Menard, deputy director for research, agreed that the new building is a crucial project for the Laboratory. “It’s central to our growth in our scientific mission and funding,” he said.

Others attending the kick-off meeting were equally enthusiastic. “The need for quality modern, flexible workspace for researchers is absolutely critical to the future of this laboratory and we’re really looking forward to this effort,” said Robert Sheneman, head of Environment, Safety and Health.

The building will be designed over the next year with construction to start in 2023 along with the tear-down of the Theory Wing and part of the Lyman Spitzer Building (LSB) Administration wing. Construction would conclude in 2026.

The multimillion-dollar building will include state-of-the-art laboratories and office space to support new research in the quantum information science and microelectronics fields. PPIC will replace the aging Theory Wing next to LSB, accommodate a growing number of staff at PPPL, and provide space for research and support staff from the Tokamak Experimental Science, Theory, Computational Sciences, and Plasma Science and Technology departments.

Transforming the look and feel of the main entrance

PPIC will “transform the look and feel of the main entrance to the campus,” with visitors entering PPPL through the new building, according to the SmithGroup presentation. The building will also include new remote visualization and collaboration spaces so PPPL researchers can continue their collaborations with scientists world-wide. It will be a flexible “showcase facility” designed to “make people want to work at PPPL,” the architects said in the presentation.

“This is an exciting time to be at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab,” said Kenyon Petura, project manager. “There’s nothing better that could energize our base than a new building,” he added. “We have hired a blue-ribbon architect who will take us through this process.’

Experience with academic buildings and research laboratories

The SmithGroup is an architectural firm with 19 offices in the U.S. and China, including in Washington D.C., and a staff of 1,300 people. The firm has designed numerous academic buildings and research laboratories including the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Forensic Identification Laboratory, the Denver Police Dept. Crime Lab, the Utah Unified State Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Chu Hall Solar Energy Research Center, the UC Berkeley Energy Biosciences Institute and Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

Transitioning to the Future of Work

Chris Roames, PPPL Facilities strategic planner, said the project is kicking off at a time when PPPL is transitioning to the Future of Work, in which staff members may be primarily on site, work fully remotely from home or have a hybrid arrangement in which they combine part-time work at home and on-site. This will require options for teams to meet with both on-site and hybrid staff, he said.

SmithGroup representatives at the meeting asked PPPL leaders and staff to answer questions like, “What does a successful Princeton Plasma Innovation Center look like?” Physicist Erik Gilson said he toured the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and was impressed by the modern, attractive laboratories that can be viewed by visitors from a distance behind a glass pane. “Having these flexible, open, well-serviced facilities will accelerate the pace of research and the types of research that can be done,” Gilson said.

Inspiring a new generation of scientists

Shannon Swilley Greco, Science Education senior program leader, said she would like to see the building go above and beyond the minimum requirements for accessibility to include high-contrast signage, enhanced wayfinding, and better acoustics for the hard of hearing.

Swilley Greco pointed out that PPIC will be the entry point for tours, school groups, student interns and other visitors, and that the new space could inspire a new generation of scientists to join the Laboratory. “It is how we’re recruiting people and improving the diversity of our workforce,” she said.

Adam Denmark, a SmithGroup vice president and science technology practice strategist and director of lab planning, said having the right amount of collaborative space is essential so that scientists can, for example, transition from a research laboratory to having a quick conversation.

The architectural team will spend the coming months through the end of the year assessing the existing space and talking to the PPPL Building Committee about their vision for the space and the best amount of space for various uses. The team will begin preliminary designs by the end of the year and through 2023 and will start construction in 2023.

Denmark said he was heartened that many of the people on the Building Committee have similar visions. "There appears to be a lot of alignment," Denmark said. "It feels like there’s a lot of momentum behind this project. It’s very encouraging to hear that you guys are kind of on the same page. That will help things moving forward."

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science