Auburn University opens unique, world-class plasma physics research laboratory today

AUBURN UNIVERSITY — Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics introduced its one-of-a-kind Magnet Laboratory and 6, 000-pound superconducting magnet at an open house today.

The facility, housed in the Department of Physics, will support plasma physics research for Auburn University faculty and students, as well as national and international scientists who will come to Auburn to perform experimental and theoretical studies. The magnet will allow researchers to shape the structure of the magnetic field and as a result, to perform potentially ground-breaking experiments.

“We have worked very hard to establish a team of collaborators. We have potential partners from Europe, from Asia, and we are continuing to build our partnerships with our U.S. collaborators. It is our hope that by the end of 2014 to early 2015, we will provide an opportunity for the first of those collaborators to come to Auburn and begin doing experiments here,” said Physics Professor Edward Thomas. “This device, in its conception, in its design, is really unique. I am fairly comfortable saying there is no other experimental configuration quite like this – to explore the physics that we are trying to do – in the world. We are quite proud of the fact that we think we have built something that is a really unique research instrument for the entire plasma physics research community.”

Plasma, which is one of the four states of matter and the most abundant in the visible universe, is what makes up a bolt of lightning, most stars, and is a primary component of the sun. 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.

“Some of the things we hope to discover are how to control the growth, formation and trapping of dust. 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,” said Thomas. “The other part of the mission of the device 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 steady state, meaning the magnetic field strength remains constant, we can perform long-duration experiments at high magnetic fields, which is something fairly unique in the plasma physics community.”

The Auburn University team of scientists will spend the next several months better familiarizing themselves with the Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment facility and conducting experiments that have never been done before in the area of dusty plasma. More than a dozen Auburn students, including undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral-researchers, were involved in the design and implementation of the new laboratory, and as the research evolves over the next several years, Thomas said he envisions opportunities for a long line of Auburn University undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

“The superconducting magnet in the laboratory is a one-of-a-kind device,” said Thomas. “There have been a half-a-dozen or so experiments around the world that have tried to explore the physics of magnetized dusty plasmas. We think of our device as the first, second-generation device, where we have taken a lot of the lessons we have learned on earlier devices and incorporated them into the design of this facility and tried to put together something that is pretty unique.”

Thomas oversaw the development and creation of the lab, which was funded by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation award in the amount of $2.1 million, which includes a 30 percent cost-sharing by Auburn University. The grant is one of the largest major research instrumentation projects ever awarded to Auburn. Thomas, who is the Lawrence C. Wit Professor of Physics, and Uwe Konopka, associate professor of physics, jointly run the Plasma Sciences Laboratory at Auburn University and will be the primary faculty conducting plasma science research in the new lab.

For more information on the development of the Magnet Laboratory, read the featured story on the Auburn University website at http://ocm.auburn.edu/featured_story/magnet_lab.html#.U4eW9qMo7cs.
For more information on Thomas, go to (http://www.auburn.edu/cosam/faculty/physics/thomas/index.htm).
For more information on the Plasma Sciences Laboratory at Auburn, go to http://psl.physics.auburn.edu/.

(Written by Candis Birchfield.)

Contact: Candis Birchfield, College of Sciences and Mathematics, (334) 844-5734 (ceh0012@auburn.edu),
Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)