Department of Physics Synergizes Auburn Grant, Faculty Expertise and Supercomputer Facility to Propel Energy Project with New Federal Funding
David Ennis and Stuart Loch from the Department of Physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) are the recipients of a competitive $879,826 grant from the Department of Energy that will run through June 30, 2022.
The project is a collaboration between Auburn plasma physicists and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility located in San Diego, CA to enable the development of fusion energy by utilizing ultraviolet spectroscopy to accurately measure the amount of tungsten in the plasma edge.
Fusion is the mechanism that powers the sun and the DIII-D experiment is part of a worldwide effort to make this promising energy source a reality.
One key requirement for future fusion reactors is to ensure that material from the walls of the vessel does not erode into the plasma volume where fusion is occurring.
“The element tungsten is a leading candidate for a first-wall material in future fusion reactors because it has the highest melting point of all metals, but it can still be eroded and decrease the overall performance of a plasma,” explained Ennis.
The research combines multiple areas of expertise existing within the Auburn physics department including experimental plasma physics, atomic physics predictions and spectroscopic interpretation to inform experiments being conducted at a large-scale national facility.
The project originally began with support from the Auburn University Intramural Grants Program, which led to the work becoming federally funded by the Department of Energy.
“The Auburn internal grant supplied funds to purchase an ultraviolet survey spectrometer that yielded pilot data for a full grant proposal. Thus, Auburn funding was key in launching this project to obtain DOE funding,” shared Loch.
The new federal funding will allow Auburn researchers to permanently install a new ultraviolet spectrometer with much higher precision on the DIII-D tokamak experiment.
According to the Department of Energy, the DIII-D tokamak is the largest magnetically confined plasma facility in the United States providing physicists with the opportunity to investigate plasmas heated to extreme temperatures.
“The acquisition of a high-resolution spectrometer along with the addition of a new Auburn postdoctoral researcher to be stationed full-time at the experiment will immediately strengthen the collaboration between Auburn University and the DIII-D plasma experiment,” Ennis noted.
In addition to experimental work, large-scale calculations were completed on Auburn University’s ‘Hopper’ supercomputer. These computations helped the project secure the first-round of federal funding, and now the collaboration is receiving a second-round of almost $900,000.
“While the initial spectroscopic measurements better informed the supercomputer calculations, the predictions from those computations in turn informed the design of the new high-resolution spectrometer. Therefore, the project represents a very productive synergy between experimental and theoretical efforts,” remarked Loch.
Plasma physics is the study of the fourth state of matter, composed of highly energetic charged particles. Auburn University is known internationally for faculty, postdocs and students conducting research in the field of plasma physics both on the Auburn campus and at facilities around the world.