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Tiny Particles, Big Mysteries

The WVU Center for Kinetic Experimental, Theoretical, and Integrated Computational Plasma Physics is pioneering research that will change what we know about the Universe.

Ready for a science lesson? There are four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

Plasmas are created when a gas gets so hot that its atoms and molecules break apart, and electrons become separated from positively charged ions. Most matter on Earth is solid, liquid or gas, but 99% of the traditional matter out in the universe is in the plasma state; it is everywhere, all of the time.

Plasma physics is used every day in the manufacturing of things like touch screens and computer chips, and it can even change the water absorbing properties of fabrics. It also plays an important part in space weather and alternative energy. The problem physicists have with plasma, though, is it’s difficult to understand at and below the kinetic-scale – the size of the orbits made by charged particles as they travel around magnetic fields. And that is a problem because to understand many of the universe’s physical marvels, we must also understand kinetic-scale plasma physics.

The WVU Center for Kinetic Experimental, Theoretical, and Integrated Computational (KINETIC) Plasma Physics is at the forefront solving mysteries behind kinetic-scale plasma physics and is paving the way towards its important applications in space weather, magnetically confined fusion and astrophysical plasmas. It is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA.

The KINETIC Center includes a diverse group of researchers from Eberly College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Statler College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. earl scime

“We are unique in that we house a very broad cross section of expertise at the University in one place, and many of our faculty are fairly young in their careers. That spectrum of knowledge is not typically found in a single center, so it’s allowed us to think of new ideas and new things to try, and they're pretty exciting,” said Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy Earl Scime. “It's really stimulating a lot of scientific creativity.”

The Center’s unique Phase Space Mapping experiment, or PHASMA, is housed in White Hall on WVU’s downtown campus. PHASMA is the first-of-its-kind in the world, and it is designed to make 3-D measurements of how positively charged ions and electrons move at kinetic scales. It uses advanced diagnostics, electromagnets and lab-created plasma to reveal new details about how the universe functions.

This year, a research scientist in Eberly's Department of Physics and Astronomy made a breakthrough in the study of magnetic reconnection as part of PHASMA. Magnetic reconnection occurs when lines of plasma particles break apart and reconnect.

Shi in the PHASMA lab

Peiyun Shi’s research is the first-of-its-kind in the laboratory setting, and it could help protect Earth’s satellite and power grid systems from space storms. The experiment directs laser beams toward plasma, and the light scatters off of electrons. The way the light scatters gives insight into how fast the electrons are moving, and because the plasma is over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the lasers allow for measuring particles without using a probe or a thermometer which would melt at such high temperatures.

lab equipment

Similar studies are able to determine the average properties of the electrons, but with the technology available as part of the PHASMA project, Shi is able to measure the actual speeds of the electrons. His findings were published in Physical Review Letters, considered one of the most prestigious journals in physics.

This research has a big impact on broader issues such as predicting space weather events because magnetic reconnection plays a major role in how eruptions of plasma occur on the sun. Those eruptions can result in solar flares which increase X-ray and ultraviolent emissions that pose a threat to astronauts in the International Space Station. The eruptions can also result in large masses of plasma that travel through space and slam into the earth’s magnetosphere.

The sun is made almost entirely of plasma, and it constantly shoots it out into space. Fortunately, Earth has a magnetic field that blocks most plasma. But very strong bursts of particles released by the sun result in geomagnetic storms, which can cause problems for satellites in orbit. They can also cause problems for the citizens of Earth – space weather influences everything from power delivery and grid security to communications, satellite operations and collision avoidance, spacecraft damage and more.

northern lights as seen from space

Scientists want to be able to understand and predict space weather, and the KINETIC Center is contributing to that effort. Its members are on a research team that has begun a groundbreaking project to improve space weather modeling and forecasting, which will help safeguard orbiting satellites as well as infrastructure on Earth. The project will incorporate a first-of-its-kind experimental investigation to shed new light on how charged and neutral particles in a plasma interact in different environments in the solar system, and it will update existing data to benefit the overall space weather community.

The project’s Principle Investigator is Piyush Mehta, assistant professor in WVU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Its co-principal investigators are Associate Professor Weichao Tu, Research Assistant Professor Christopher Fowler, Dr. Scime and Professor Paul Cassak, all from Eberly’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, as well as Professor Snehalata Huzurbazar from the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Data Science. They are being funded by a $2.4 million award from the National Science Foundation in collaboration with colleagues from University of Texas at Arlington, the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Scime will lead the project’s laboratory investigation in the KINETIC Center. He and his students have spent the first few weeks of the summer designing and building the hardware they need for the experiments.

“What we're doing specifically is trying to provide better, more accurate measurements of what happens when electrical currents flow through the upper atmosphere around the earth,” he said. “The physics of those currents in the upper atmosphere actually determine a lot of what happens for thousands of miles around the earth in space, and we're going to try and create better measurements so that the modelers and theorists can make more accurate predictions.”

According to Scime, one of the KINETIC Center’s strengths is the mentorship it provides to students as they work with faculty on plasma-related experiments. The Center has attracted graduate students that study physics, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and it has helped propel WVU students to leadership roles in plasma physics research across the country.

The faculty have also captured a lot of interest from the physics community recently. They are leading experimentation for large national projects and have received funding to build up new facilities on WVU’s campus.

“Plasma physics is a healthy field right now. It's getting a lot of attention nationally for the role it plays in controlled thermonuclear fusion and space weather,” Scime explained. “It may not be on the tip of everyone's tongues, but if you go around the country to other plasma physics programs, they know what we're doing, and they're very excited.”