UCLA, Maryland awarded $6.4 million fusion center


UCLA and the University of Maryland have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to host a new $6.4 million Fusion Science Center that will bring together scientists with expertise in applied mathematics, theoretical and computational plasma physics, and sophisticated plasma experiments, announced Raymond L. Orbach, director of the department's Office of Science.

UCLA and the University of Maryland and UCLA will run the Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics jointly, using facilities at both universities. Steven Cowley, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, will direct the center with his University of Maryland colleague, William Dorland. Faculty and researchers from Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan also will participate. The researchers will study the interaction of microscale and macroscale dynamics in key plasma physics problems. DOE funding for the center will span five years.

"This new Fusion Science Center will make significant contributions to our understanding of plasma physics, and to the quest for fusion," said Tony Chan, dean of physical sciences in the UCLA College. "Plasma physics has been a traditional strength at UCLA. For instance, our Basic Plasma Science Facility, federally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, is the best facility in the world for physicists to conduct controlled experiments to understand the properties of plasma -- research that could have significant applications for this country. The Fusion Science Center will enable UCLA to continue to invest in a new generation of world-class scientists in plasma physics, who will greatly benefit from the expertise of center co-director Steven Cowley, as well as other outstanding faculty."

Cowley noted that the research of the center will benefit the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER), the international research effort to build a fusion reactor. The reactor will take 10 years to build after a site is selected; sites have been narrowed to Japan and France.

In nuclear fusion, atoms collide inside a reactor at extremely high temperature and pressure, releasing energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity. The sun is powered by fusion reactions taking place in its hot dense core. Fusion is a safe, nearly limitless energy source that may be how electricity is produced in the future, Cowley said.

A viable fusion power plant requires an understanding of how plasma behaves. Plasma is a turbulent, hot, ionized, gas-like matter that is believed to make up more than 99 percent of the visible universe, including the sun, the stars, galaxies and the vast majority of the solar system. Plasma is a fourth state of matter, distinct from solids, liquids and gases, in which electrons have been stripped away to leave positively charged atoms or molecules. The Earth is too cold for plasmas to exist here naturally.

"Fusion started in 1950, and still much is not known," Cowley acknowledged. "We're just now getting to where the researchers in 1950 thought they would be by 1955. Enormous strides were made in the last 10 years. Through a better scientific understanding, we may be able to improve the performance of ITER."

The UCLA-Maryland Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics will try to understand three mysteries about plasmas: "sawteeth," "tearing instabilities" and "transport barriers," Cowley said.

The "sawteeth" arise when the temperature in the center of fusion-experiment plasmas rises and crashes, rises and crashes in the zigzag shape that resembles the edge of a saw.

"The sawteeth phenomenon has been known since the late 1960s; we still don't understand it, but I think we will," Cowley said. "We plan to understand this phenomenon with small-scale experiments and very large-scale computer modeling. We will try to model very complicated dynamics when the plasma turns itself inside out in the presence of turbulent fluctuations. I am optimistic that we will succeed.

"What the computer has done for plasma science is remarkable," Cowley said. "In some areas of physics, it's not a help at all, but in plasma science, sophisticated computers are an enormous help. This is a new way of doing physics research; it used to be that computers could not model in enough detail to allow us to test models for a complex system."

If the sawteeth phenomenon will occur in the international thermonuclear experimental reactor, scientists would want the central temperature to be as hot as possible. "The best performance is just before the plasma crashes," Cowley said. "If we understood it and if we could extend the time between the crashes, we would be able to sustain the hot temperature and get more fusion from ITER."

UCLA's plasma physics very recently obtained a powerful $800,000 computer, federally funded by the National Science Foundation, that will be a valuable tool in this research, Cowley said.

"Through large-scale computer modeling, experiments and theory, we will better understand this phenomenon and related phenomena," he said.

A second mystery is how a plasma at times seems to slowly tear itself apart, Cowley said. The Fusion Science Center will develop computational models and insights into this phenomenon.

A third phenomenon that the center will study with large-scale computing is how layers of plasma, called transport barriers, form; the layers are very effective at insulating heat. Heat in the center of a plasma can bubble up like boiling water; as the bubbles move toward an edge of the plasma, they lose heat. Transport barriers stop these bubbles moving heat across the plasma.

The center's research also will provide a better understanding of plasmas in space.

UCLA faculty who will participate in the center include Walter Gekelman, UCLA professor of physics and director of UCLA's Basic Plasma Science Facility -- the country's first national research facility for scientists worldwide to study the mysterious properties of plasma -- and Troy Carter, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

Cowley is excited that the Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics will enable UCLA to train a new generation of exceptional postdoctoral scholars and graduate students to study these phenomena.

Cowley plans to run videoconference seminars for scientists at UCLA, University of Maryland, Princeton, MIT and Michigan. The center will host a high-level three-week course at UCLA each winter for advanced graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, addressing the frontiers of plasma physics. UCLA's Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics will host a scientific meeting on multiscale dynamics for fusion.

The Department of Energy also has selected the University of Rochester to host a second Fusion Science Center: the Fusion Center for Extreme States of Matter and Fast Ignition Physics. This center will include the participation of UCLA physics and astronomy professor Warren Mori, as well as scientists from MIT, General Atomics, University of California at San Diego, Ohio State University, and the University of Texas at Austin, and will include collaboration with the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration programs at Rochester and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The two Fusion Science Centers will perform research in areas of such wide scope and complexity that it would not be feasible for individual or small groups of researchers to make progress, the DOE said in announcing the new centers. The centers are intended to strengthen the connection between the fusion research community and the broader scientific community. Education and training will be an integral part of each center's research program.

Each DOE grant may be renewed once for an additional five years.

"These two Fusion Science Centers will strengthen basic research into the frontiers of fusion science, a central mission of the department's fusion energy sciences program," the Department of Energy's Raymond Orbach said. "The centers will train students to meet the U.S. fusion program's future needs and help our fusion program communicate about our progress and accomplishments with the broader scientific community."

The Fusion Science Centers program is a response to recommendations of the National Research Council's Report, "An Assessment of the Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences Program."

The centers were chosen in a two-step process. In response to a Federal Register notice last August 14 preliminary applications to establish new Fusion Science Centers were submitted last fall. Following a peer review of these applications, seven collaborations were invited to submit full applications for additional peer review.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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