In the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of West Virginia, PHASMA, a complex and unique experiment in the world consisting of vacuum pumps, electromagnets and plasma created in the laboratory reveals new details about how the Universe functions.
PHASMA, or the PHAse Space MApping experiment, as it is officially called, is the approach of the WVU Center for Kinetic Experiment, Theory and Integrated Computation Physics (KINETIC), which recently received $ 2.25 million in funding from the US Department of Energy.
To fully understand PHASMA and the Center, you need to deepen 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, a professor of physics and astronomy and one of the project’s co-researchers. “Think of the ice. It is a solid. Heat it and it will become a liquid. Keep heating it and it turns into steam, a gas. But if you keep heating it, it can get so hot that you have collisions that break atoms and molecules. Charged particles, such as electrons, come off the rest of the atom or molecule. That means it’s an ionized gas, which is another word for plasma. ”
This cannot be done in the kitchen.
Plasma from the solar system, made mostly from hydrogen, is produced at about 100,000 degrees, Cassak said.
Earl Scime, director of the center and professor of physics and astronomy at Jefimenko, and his team built PHASMA to better understand how plasmas work. Plasma physics is used in a variety of everyday applications, such as making the touch screen of the mobile device, silicon etching to make computer chips, and even to change the properties that absorb the tissue water. Plasma can also play a key role in space climate and alternative energies.
PHASMA is designed to make three-dimensional measurements of the movement of ions and electrons in a 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 full of stored electricity release their energy in a rapid burst through “plasma guns” that fire a plasma beam, much like a welding arc. Another bank of capacitors is activated more than a meter away and the plasma is extracted from the plasma gun. A magnetic field, hundreds of times the force of the Earth’s magnetic field, guides the plasma along the axis of the experiment.
Scime and his team fire two weapons at the same time and measure and analyze what they see as the two plasma tubes attract each other and fuse in a process called magnetic reconnection. Understanding magnetic reconnection is key to being 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 during reconnection with techniques that only exist in WVU,” Scime said.
Two possible applications of real plasma at the center of the experiment are fusion (an energy alternative) and space climate, Cassak said.
Fusion occurs when it joins two particles, such as atoms, that fuse and, in the process, release energy, he explained. This energy could be collected in a power plant and served as an alternative energy source.
“What’s good about having a fusion power plant, which by the way doesn’t exist yet, is that it’s very clean and renewable,” Cassak said.
In order 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 climate. Much of the universe is in a plasma state, Cassak said, unlike here on Earth.
He noted that the sun, which is almost entirely plasma, continuously shoots plasma into space. This plasma can be directed towards the Earth.
“Fortunately, the Earth has a magnetic field that blocks plasma so it doesn’t hurt us,” Cassak said. “But from time to time, the sun produces an explosion that crashes into this magnetic field, which can cause problems. It can damage satellites. If you are on a plane, it can interfere with communications.
And it can cause widespread power outages.
On September 2, 1859, the most powerful solar storm on record, known as the Carrington event, burst into the magnetic field and opened telegraph cables throughout the United States and Europe, breaking communication systems and igniting 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 erupted from coast to coast.
“All of these things that come to Earth are in a plasma state, so we want to understand that and predict it,” Cassak said. “This is where plasma physics comes in.”
Other professors involved in the project include Weichao Tu, an 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 professor of plasma physics and space plasma research.
“WVU is now a national leader in plasma physics research and it’s exciting to have so many brilliant colleagues and students working together at the center,” Scime said.
Additional DOE funding will also provide advanced training for highly skilled workers to support the growth of high-tech industries in West Virginia.