Plasma – the most common state of matter in the universe – is a key ingredient in the advancement of technology and two West Virginia University physicists are part of a multi-institution team trying to figure out how better to control and manipulate it in ways that can lead to breakthroughs in everything from common household goods to life-saving medical tools.

The project will enable fundamental research on low-temperature plasmas – ionized gases with vast potential for practical technological advancements.

The Center for Predictive Control of Plasma Kinetics: Multi-phase and Bounded Systems is funded by a $10-million, 5-year grant from the DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.
The Center is headquartered at the University of Michigan and will bring highly qualified modelers and experimentalists together for collaborative research.

“The effort is part of the leadership role that DOE has adopted for stewarding basic plasma sciences and engineering in the U.S.,” explained Robert C. Byrd Professor of Physics Mark Koepke.

Koepke and Vladimir Demidov, research professor of physics, lead the project at WVU.
Research conducted at the center could lead to more efficient solar cells, finer-featured microchips and new medical tools that perform surgery with local plasma-activated chemistry, rather than with laser beams or conventional scalpels.

Plasma surgical tools can allow wounds to heal faster because they are inherently sterile and impose less tissue damage according to Mark Kushner, George I. Haddad professor of engineering at the University of Michigan. Kushner is the new center’s director.

“Low temperature plasmas create great societal benefits through the technologies they enable,” Kushner said. “This center will advance the fundamental science that will enable plasmas used in technical applications to provide even greater advancements in areas such as energy, materials and healthcare.”

Plasma is the most prevalent state of known matter in the universe. The sun is a high-temperature plasma. On Earth, low-temperature plasmas are exploited in high-resolution, light-weight television displays, used in manufacturing solar cells, and responsible for the intricately carved features of silicon microchips, among many other applications.

“Using experiments and computational models, researchers at the new center will investigate the science behind methods to best control the portfolio of velocities of the charged particles in low-temperature plasmas,” Koepke said. “That results in designer-level customization of the plasma’s functionality – a vital tool in exploiting plasmas for technology.”

Demidov explained that the distribution of energy in plasma can be manipulated but is difficult at present to predict beyond past experience.
“Attaining predictive experimental control requires new knowledge in the way plasma energy is transferred from place to place,” he said. “Along the way, it can be carried by ions, electrons, neutral atoms, charged molecules, photons and excited-state atoms or molecules. Sometimes, the plasma energy in one spot is influenced mostly from processes taking place at a far-away spot in the plasma, and we have demonstrated that we can control that to great advantage.”

The center will develop public-accessible computer models that will allow researchers outside the Center to enter a particular desired plasma configuration and obtain information about what electric and magnetic fields they must apply to achieve those attributes.

In addition to West Virginia University and the University of Michigan, the following institutions have researchers involved in the project: The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, University of Houston; University of California, Berkeley; Sandia National Laboratory, University of Wisconsin, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the University of Maryland.

-WVU-

CONTACT: Mark Koepke
(304) 293-3422, ext. 1456