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A Bright (and glowing) Future Ahead

Auburn's plasma researchers shine bright on the global stage

The dodecahedron plasma discharge chamber, an experimental device.

It’s a glowing ionized gas observed in lightning, the sun and the stars, the tails of comets and even inside neon signs and fluorescent lights. It is plasma – a state of matter relatively few are aware of but a field of study for which Auburn University has become known on a global scale.

“Auburn’s Department of Physics is widely recognized for having a very broad and strong research program in the field of plasma physics,” said Department Chair Jim Hanson. “The significant growth in Auburn’s plasma physics program began with Bob Kribel’s arrival as Department Head in the late 1970s. Since then, research has grown to include three main areas of study: laboratory, fusion and space plasma physics.”

In the Plasma Sciences Laboratory, researchers explore magnetized dusty plasma using a 6,000 pound one-of-a kind superconducting magnet, and also have a project selected for the study of complex plasma aboard the International Space Station.

Researchers in Auburn’s fusion plasma physics program are working on projects locally and internationally to help meet energy demands worldwide by making fusion energy a reality.

By advancing their knowledge of the magnetosphere, Auburn’s space plasma team will be better able to understand Earth’s region of the solar system and develop new understandings of the basic principles that determine the behavior of plasmas that fill the universe.

Auburn’s exploration of the nature and uses of plasma on Earth and beyond have advanced knowledge and understanding of this fourth state of matter and firmly established the plasma physics program’s expertise in the field.

Plasma Sciences Laboratory

Two very different research projects are taking place in the Plasma Sciences Laboratory in Auburn’s Leach Science Center, both involving the investigation of dusty plasma.

The Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment, housed in the Magnet Lab, has as its centerpiece a 6,000-pound superconducting magnet, the only device of its kind.

The other project features research using an experimental device – the dodecahedron plasma discharge chamber – that potentially will lead to participation in flight investigations operated aboard the International Space Station.

The Plasma Sciences Laboratory is jointly run by Edward Thomas, the Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, and Uwe Konopka, associate professor of physics.

The Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment, or MDPX, is a one-of-a-kind facility that supports plasma physics research for Auburn students and researchers, as well as for a diverse team of national and international researchers who come to Auburn to perform experimental and theoretical studies.

A plasma that contains electrically charged micro-particles, or dust grains, can form a “dusty” plasma. The rings of Saturn and the long tails of comets are examples of dusty plasmas in nature. The MDPX is a system for studying plasmas and dusty plasmas under conditions that have previously been inaccessible in experiments.

“There have been a half dozen or so experiments around the world that have tried to explore the physics of magnetized dusty plasmas,” Thomas said. “However, we can do something that no other device can do, and that is to shape the structure of the magnetic field.

“Because the MDPX device is a unique instrument for this type of research, our team has committed to operating the laboratory as a user facility. This means that researchers from across the U.S. and around the world will be coming to Auburn to work with us. Since the MDPX began operation in 2014, we have had international users from Germany, France, South Korea, and India.”

As the research evolves, Thomas also envisions opportunities for a long line of undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

“Some of the things we hope to discover are how to control the growth, formation, and trapping of dust,” Thomas said. “If we can control the behavior of dust, then we can see how to use dust as a tool. Only a few experiments in the world have looked at the charged, magnetized particles, and that is the primary mission of the device.

Magnet Laboratory

The other part of the device’s mission is to study the fundamental physics of strongly magnetized plasmas. Because of the magnetic field strength that we can produce, and because that magnetic field can be produced in a steady state, we can perform long-duration experiments at high magnetic fields, which is something fairly unique in the plasma physics community.”

Thomas oversaw the development and creation of the Magnet Lab, which was funded by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation award for $2.1 million. The grant is one of the largest major research instrumentation, or MRI, projects ever awarded to Auburn.

The work is an extension of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory’s ongoing research on dusty (complex) plasmas and this particular project is intended to be the leading research facility for study in this field.

Another experiment taking place in the Plasma Sciences Laboratory involves the dodecahedron plasma discharge chamber, an experimental device dedicated to the study of complex plasma consisting of electrons, ions and neutral atoms as well as a highly charged micro-particle component. The experiment is a result of development efforts toward novel complex plasma space facilities that potentially will be operated aboard the International Space Station to explore the physics of complex plasma. The initial development started in 2007 at the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany by Uwe Konopka, who has continued his effort to advance and explore this novel, unique plasma experiment here at Auburn as part of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory.

The work of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.

Students and faculty in the plasma sciences laboratory.

Fusion Plasma Physics

The increased demand for energy worldwide calls for new solutions. Fusion – the process that powers the sun and the stars – could provide a sustainable alternative. Researchers in Auburn’s fusion plasma physics program are working to help make fusion energy a reality.

Fusion occurs when atoms are heated to very high temperatures, causing them to collide at high velocity and fuse together. When two light nuclei collide to form a heavier nucleus the process releases a large amount of energy.

“Research in fusion science was declassified in 1958 and began at Auburn University in 1979,” Maurer said. “Historically, Auburn’s Department of Physics has had a strong program in this area – in fusion as well as in the fundamental science of how you magnetically confine something as hot as high temperature plasma – that dates back decades.”

To harness energy from fusion, gas needs to be heated to a very energetic state – plasma – and confined.

Faculty working on fusion plasma physics.

Funded by the Department of Energy for $1.5 million for three years, the Compact Toroidal Hybrid, or CTH, is Auburn’s experiment for magnetically confining high temperature plasmas. Members   of the CTH team form a diverse group of experimental, theoretical and computational physicists, at the  faculty, graduate and undergraduate levels.

Research at Auburn investigates the fundamental dynamics of magnetically confined plasmas in the laboratory, one possible route to sustained nuclear fusion.

Magnetically confined plasmas are trapped using magnetic fields, which can prevent high-temperature plasma from coming into contact with solid materials that it could damage or destroy. Local experiments using the CTH include determining how the magnetic field interacts with the plasma, how to stabilize it and how to confine it.

Auburn is also involved with some of the larger experiments around the country and around the world. “Auburn scientists currently have $1.8 million in funding for a joint project with the University of  Wisconsin-Madison to conduct experiments on the Wendelstein 7-X, or W7-X, fusion device located at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany,” said David Maurer, associate professor and principal investigator. “Research on the Wendelstein 7-X tests the practicality of a fusion power plant. Auburn researchers have been collaborators since the beginning of operations of the W7-X experiment and their activities have grown over time since then.”

Dr. Maurer and Dr. Ennis

Assistant Professor David Ennis has been onsite for six weeks this summer at W7-X. Auburn also has an assistant research faculty and two graduate students that work on the device and will add a post-doctoral researcher.

Construction of the Wendelstein 7-X was concluded in 2014, and scientists anticipate achieving operations of continuous fusion energy discharge of up to 30 minutes by 2021. Research on the W7-X contributes directly to the preparation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, the world’s largest and most expensive fusion energy experiment, now under construction in southern France.

“Research in fusion science was declassified in 1958 and began at Auburn University in 1979,” Maurer said. “Historically, Auburn’s Department of Physics has had a strong program in this area – in fusion as well as in the fundamental science of how you magnetically confine something as hot as high  temperature plasma – that dates back decades.”

Faculty working on a machine in the lab.  Faculty working on equipment in the plasma physics lab.

Auburn hosted the 2018 International Sherwood Fusion Theory Conference in April – the first time in its 60-year history that the conference had come to Auburn. The conference drew approximately 100 scientists from major fusion research centers in the United States and around the world – including China and Europe – for a discussion of theoretical and computational, controlled thermonuclear fusion science.

The first meeting of what is now known as the International Sherwood Fusion Theory Conference was held in the late 1950s, and continues in much the same format as it started. It brings experts together to discuss advances toward development of a sustainable, inexhaustible energy source.

Faculty and staff in the Auburn Fusion Lab working on the Compact Toroidal Hybrid Experiment are Professor Jim Hanson, Chair of the Department of Physics, Associate Professor Luca Guazzotto, Associate Professor and Principal Investigator Dave Maurer, Professor and Co-Principal Investigator David Ennis, Associate Research Professor and Co-Principal Investigator Greg Hartwell, Professor Emeritus and Co-Principal Investigator Steve Knowlton and Engineering Technician John Dawson.

EPSCoR funding benefits Auburn’s plasma physics program

A five-year, $20 million award from the National Science Foundation will help Auburn and other universities across Alabama create a strong collaborative statewide network to better understand the interactions of plasma – a key state of matter.

Plasmas make up more than 90 percent of the observable universe and underpin several high-tech manufacturing industries.

The NSF grant, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, funds the study of the behavior of plasmas on earth – the ones we can make for applications such as processing of microelectronic devices and treating seeds for planting to enhance their growth.

Understanding how to control plasma in real life applications on earth will enhance the ability to safely conduct a wide variety of operations.

Alabama is one of five jurisdictions to receive this award and its project will focus on the study of low-temperature plasmas. Auburn’s funding will be used primarily for graduate and post-doctoral students.

Last Updated: 10/12/2018