Fourth State of Matter Exploration: WVU Plasma Physics Research Project Receives $ 2.25 Million Federal Funding | WVU today

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PHASMA, hosted within the Physics and Astronomy Department of WVU, is a complex, one-of-a-kind experiment in the world, made up of vacuum pumps, electromagnets and laboratory-created plasma that reveals new details about how the Universe functions.
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Within the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of West Virginia, PHASMA, a complex experiment unique in the world of vacuum pumps, electromagnets and laboratory-created plasma reveals new details about the way the Universe functions.

PHASMA – or the PHAse Space MApping experiment as it is officially called – is at the center of the WVU Center for Kinetic Experiment, Theory and Integrated Computation (KINETIC) Physics, which recently received $ 2.25 million in funding from the department. American Energy.

To fully understand PHASMA and the Center, it is necessary to perfect your knowledge of the fourth state of matter: plasma.

“The states of matter we think about the most are solids, liquids and gases,” said Paul Cassak, professor of physics and astronomy and one of the project’s co-investigators. “Think about ice cream. It is a solid. You heat it up and it will turn to liquid. You keep heating it and it turns into vapor, a gas. But if you keep heating it, it can get so hot that you have collisions that separate atoms and molecules. Charged particles, like electrons, break away from the rest of the atom or molecule. This means that it is ionized gas, which is another word for plasma.

It cannot be done on your stove.

The solar system’s plasma, mostly hydrogen, occurs at around 100,000 degrees, Cassak said.

Earl Scime, director of the Center and Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and his team built PHASMA to better understand how plasmas work. Plasma physics is used in a variety of everyday applications such as fabricating the touch screen on your mobile device, etching silicon to fabricate computer chips, and even altering the water absorption properties of tissues. . Plasma can also play a key role in space weather and alternative energies.

PHASMA is designed to perform three-dimensional measurements of the movement of ions and electrons in plasma at very small scales and is the only facility in the world capable of performing these detailed measurements.

This is how PHASMA works: Capacitor banks filled with stored electricity release their energy in a rapid burst through “plasma guns” that project a jet of plasma, much like a welding arc. Another capacitor bank is triggered more than a meter away and the plasma is sucked out of the plasma gun. A magnetic field, hundreds of times the strength of Earth’s magnetic field, guides the plasma along the axis of the experiment.

Scime and his team fire two cannons at the same time and measure and analyze what they see as the two plasma tubes attract and merge in a process called magnetic reconnection. Understanding magnetic reconnection is essential to be able to predict the behavior of plasmas in space and in thermonuclear fusion experiments.

“PHASMA is unique in that this experiment is able to study the movement of ions and electrons upon reconnection with techniques that only exist at WVU,” said Scime.

Two potential real-world applications of plasma at the center of the experiment are fusion – an energy alternative – and space weather, Cassak said.

Fusion occurs when you crush two particles, such as atoms, and they merge together and in doing so release energy, he explained. This energy could be collected in a power plant and serve as an alternative energy source.

“The good thing about a fusion power plant, which by the way doesn’t exist yet, is that it’s very clean and renewable,” Cassak said.

For fusion to occur, atoms or molecules must reach a certain temperature to be in a plasma state.

Another mission of the Center is to study the relationship of plasma with space weather. Much of the universe is in a plasma state, Cassak said, unlike here on Earth.

The sun, which is almost entirely plasma, continually projects plasma into space, he noted. This plasma could be heading towards Earth.

“Fortunately, the Earth has a magnetic field that blocks the plasma so it doesn’t harm us,” Cassak said. “But every once in a while the sun detonates an explosion that crashes into this magnetic field, which can cause problems. This can damage the satellites. If you are on an airplane, it can interfere with communications.

And that can lead to widespread power outages.

On September 2, 1859, the most powerful solar storm on record, known as the Carrington event, erupted through the magnetic field and crushed telegraph wires across the United States and Europe, shattering systems communication and triggering several fires.

In more recent history, the province of Quebec suffered a one-day blackout in March 1989 due to a solar storm. In the United States, more than 200 power grid problems have erupted from coast to coast.

“Everything that happens on Earth is in a plasma state, so we want to understand it and predict it,” Cassak said. “This is where plasma physics comes in.

Other WVU professors involved in the project include Weichao Tu, associate professor of physics and astronomy; Piyush Mehta, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Katherine Goodrich, assistant professor of space physics; and Chris Fowler, assistant research professor in plasma and space plasma physics.

“WVU is now a national leader in plasma physics research and it is exciting to have so many brilliant colleagues and students working together at the Center,” said Scime.

The additional DOE funding will also provide advanced training for highly skilled workers to support the growth of high-tech industries in West Virginia.

-WVU-

js / 10/07/21

CONTACT: Jake Stump
Director
WVU Research Communications
304-293-5507; [email protected]

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