Auburn professor will expand research of dusty plasma with $2.1 million award

AUBURN – Edward Thomas, Auburn University physics professor and director of the Plasma Sciences Laboratory, has received a National Science Foundation award through the Major Research Instrumentation, or MRI, program, which he will use to further his research on the physics of dusty plasma.

The total amount awarded to Thomas is $2.1 million, which includes a 30 percent cost-sharing by Auburn University. This project represents one of the largest MRI projects ever awarded to Auburn University.

The MRI program serves to increase access to shared scientific and engineering instruments for use in our nation’s museums, science centers, not-for-profit organizations and institutions of higher education.

With the funds, Thomas will build a magnetized dusty plasma device which, as a multi-user instrument, will be a valuable tool for the research community. It will enable a wide variety of collaborative projects, ranging from the physics of planet formation to the control of contamination during microelectronics manufacturing.

Plasma is the most common form of matter in the universe and consists of a collection of free-moving electrons and ions – atoms that have lost electrons. Dusty plasmas have been the focus of intense research in the past decade, driven by concerns both in space and on earth. Dusty plasmas are normal plasmas, consisting of ions and free electrons, which contain micron-sized particles.

Dusty plasmas occur frequently in space and are thought to play an important role in star and planet formation. The industrial community has also encouraged the study of dusty plasma. Plasmas are used to produce microchips, thin film coatings and hardened metals. In these cases, dust may form from materials in the plasma reactor, creating a source of contamination.

Thomas’ magnetized dusty plasma device will allow for the study of the coupling between neutral atoms, ions, electrons and charged microparticles in a fully magnetized plasma environment in which the magnetic force is comparable to electric, gravitational or other inter-particle interaction forces.

This new experiment enables laboratory investigations of phenomena relevant to plasma physics, astrophysics, fusion and fluid systems. The device will also allow investigations into scientific topics that were previously inaccessible in earlier experiments.

A result of more than two years of international development, the project has leveraged the expertise of the entire dusty plasma research community, as well as many researchers with interests in fusion, astrophysics and fluid mechanics.

Thomas will also expand an existing collaboration with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Science Education program to make use of dusty plasmas as a platform for introducing research skills at the K-12 and undergraduate student level.

For more information about the Plasma Sciences Laboratory, go to

Contact: Candis Birchfield, (334) 844-5434 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (