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PPPL researchers present cutting edge results at APS Plasma Physics Conference

Some 135 researchers, graduate students, and staff members from PPPL joined 1,500 research scientists from around the world at the 56th annual meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics Conference from Oct. 27 to Oct. 31 in New Orleans. Topics in the sessions ranged from waves in plasma to the physics of ITER, the international physics experiment in Cadarache, France; to women in plasma physics. Dozens of PPPL scientists presented the results of their cutting-edge research into magnetic fusion and plasma science. There were about 100 invited speakers at the conference, more than a dozen of whom were from PPPL.  

The press releases in this issue are condensed versions of press releases that were prepared by the APS with the assistance of the scientists quoted and with background material written by John Greenwald and Jeanne Jackson DeVoe. The full text is available at the APS Virtual Pressroom 2014: http://www.aps.org/units/dpp/meetings/vpr/2014/index.cfm.

How magnetic reconnection goes “Boom!”

MRX research reveals how magnetic energy turns into explosive particle energy

Paper by: M. Yamada, J. Yoo

Magnetic reconnection, in which the magnetic field lines in plasma snap apart and violently reconnect, creates massive eruptions of plasma from the sun. But how reconnection transforms magnetic energy into explosive particle energy has been a major mystery.

Now research conducted on the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX)  at PPPL has taken a key step toward identifying how the transformation takes place, and measuring experimentally the amount of magnetic energy that turns into particle energy. The investigation showed that reconnection in a prototypical reconnection layer converts about 50 percent of the magnetic energy, with one-third of the conversion heating the electrons and two-thirds accelerating the ion in the plasma.

“This is a major milestone for our research,” said Masaaki Yamada, the principal investigator for the MRX. “We can now see the entire picture of how much of the energy goes to the electrons and how much to  the ions in a prototypical reconnection layer.” 

What a Difference a Magnetic Field Makes

Experiments on MRX confirm the lack of symmetry in converging space plasmas

Paper by: J. Yoo

Spacecraft observing magnetic reconnection have noted a fundamental gap between most theoretical studies of the phenomenon and what happens in space. While the studies assume that the converging plasmas share symmetrical characteristics such as temperature, density and magnetic strength, observations have shown that this is hardly the case

PPPL researchers have now found the disparity in plasma density in experiments conducted on the MRX. The work, done in collaboration with the Space Science Center at the University of New Hampshire, marks the first laboratory confirmation of the disparity and deepens understanding of the mechanisms involved.

Data from the MRX findings could help to inform a four-satellite mission—the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, or MMS—that NASA plans to launch next year to study reconnection in the magnetosphere. The probes could produce a better understanding of geomagnetic storms and lead to advanced warning of the disturbances and an improved ability to cope with them.

Using radio waves to control density in fusion plasma

Experiments show how heating electrons in the center of hot fusion plasma can increase turbulence, reducing the density in the inner core

Paper by: D. Ernst, K. Burrell, W. Guttenfelder, T. Rhodes, A. Dimits

Recent fusion experiments on the DIII-D tokamak at General Atomics in San Diego and the Alcator C-Mod tokamak at MIT show that beaming microwaves into the center of the plasma can be used to control the density in the center of the plasma. The experiments and analysis were conducted by a team of researchers as part of a National Fusion Science Campaign.

The new experiments reveal that turbulent density fluctuations in the inner core intensify when most of the heat goes to electrons instead of plasma ions, as would happen in the center of a self-sustaining fusion reaction. Supercomputer simulations closely reproduce the experiments, showing that the electrons become more turbulent as they are more strongly heated, and this transports both particles and heat out of the plasma.  

“As we approached conditions where mainly the electrons are heated, pure trapped electrons begin to dominate,” said Walter Guttenfelder, who did the supercomputer simulations for the DIII-D experiments along with Andris Dimits of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Guttenfelder was a co-leader of the experiments and simulations with Keith Burrell of General Atomics and Terry Rhoades of UCLA. Darin Ernst of MIT led the overall research. 

Calming the Plasma Edge: The Tail that Wags the Dog

Lithium injections show promise for optimizing the performance of fusion plasmas

Paper by: G.L. Jackson, R. Maingi, T. Osborne, Z. Yan, D. Mansfield, S.L. Allen

Experiments on the DIII-D tokamak fusion reactor that General Atomics operates for the U.S. Department of Energy have demonstrated the ability of lithium injections to transiently double the temperature and pressure at the edge of the plasma and delay the onset of instabilities and other transients. Researchers conducted the experiments using a lithium-injection device developed at PPPL.

Lithium can play an important role in controlling the edge region and hence the evolution of the entire plasma. In the present work, lithium diminished the frequency of instabilities known as “edge localized modes” (ELMs), which have associated heat pulses that can damage the section of the vessel wall used to exhaust heat in fusion devices.

The tailored injections produced ELM-free periods of up to 0.35 seconds, while reference discharges without lithium showed no ELM-free periods above 0.03 sec. The lithium rapidly increased the width of the pedestal region—the edge of the plasma where temperature drops off sharply—by up to 100 percent and raised the electron pressure and total pressure in the edge by up to 100 percent and 60 percent respectively. These dramatic effects produced a 60 percent increase in total energy-confinement time.

Scratching the surface of a material mystery

Scientists shed new light on how lithium conditions the volatile edge of fusion plasmas

Paper by: Angela Capece

For fusion energy to fuel future power plants, scientists must find ways to control the interactions that take place between the volatile edge of fusion plasma and the physical walls that surround it in fusion facilities. Such interactions can profoundly affect conditions at the superhot core of the plasma in ways that include kicking up impurities that cool down the core and halt fusion reactions. Among the puzzles is how temperature affects the ability of lithium to absorb and retain the deuterium particles that stray from the fuel that creates fusion reactions.

Answers are now emerging from a new surface-science laboratory at PPPL that can probe lithium coatings that are just three atoms thick. The experiments showed that the ability of ultrathin lithium films to retain deuterium drops as the temperature of the molybdenum substrate rises—a result that provides insight  into how lithium affects the performance of tokamaks

Experiments further showed that exposing the lithium to oxygen improved deuterium retention at temperatures below about 400 degrees Kelvin. But without exposure to oxygen, lithium films could retain deuterium at higher temperatures as a result of lithium-deuterium bonding during a PPPL experiment. 

Putting Plasma to Work Upgrading the U.S. Power Grid

PPPL lends GE a hand in developing an advanced power-conversion switch

Paper by: Johan Carlsson, Alex Khrabrov, Igor Kaganovich, Timothy Summerer

When researchers at General Electric sought help in designing a plasma-based power switch, they turned to PPPL. The proposed switch, which GE is developing under contract with the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, could contribute to a more advanced and reliable electric grid and help lower utility bills.

The switch would consist of a plasma-filled tube that turns current on and off in systems that convert the direct current coming from long-distance power lines to the alternating current that lights homes and businesses; such systems are used to reverse the process as well.

To assist GE, PPPL used a pair of computer codes to model the properties of plasma under different magnetic configurations and gas pressures. GE also studied PPPL’s use of liquid lithium, which the laboratory employs to prevent damage to the divertor that exhausts heat in a fusion facility. The information could help GE develop a method for protecting the liquid-metal cathode—the negative terminal inside the tube—from damage from the ions carrying the current flowing through the plasma. 

Laser experiments mimic cosmic explosions

Scientists bring plasma tsunamis into the lab

Researchers are finding ways to understand some of the mysteries of space without leaving earth. Using high-intensity lasers at the University of Rochester’s OMEGA EP Facility focused on targets smaller than a pencil’s eraser, they conducted experiments to create colliding jets of plasma knotted by plasma filaments and self-generated magnetic fields.

In two related experiments, researchers used powerful lasers to recreate a tiny laboratory version of what happens at the beginning of solar flares and stellar explosions, creating something like a gigantic plasma tsunami in space. Much of what happens in those situations is related to magnetic reconnection, which can accelerate particles to high energy and is the force driving solar flares towards earth.

Laboratory experiment aims to identify how tsunamis of plasma called “shock waves” form in space 

By W. Fox, G. Fisksel (LLE), A. Bhattacharjee

William Fox, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and his colleague Gennady Fiksel, of the University of Rochester, got an unexpected result when they used lasers in the Laboratory to recreate a tiny version of a gigantic plasma tsunami called a “shock wave.” The shock wave is a thin area found at the boundary between a supernova and the colder material around it that has a turbulent magnetic field that sweeps up plasma into a steep tsunami-like wave of plasma.

Fox and Fiksel used two very powerful lasers to zap two tiny pieces of plastic in a vacuum chamber to 10 million degrees and create two colliding plumes of extremely hot plasma.  The researchers found something they had not anticipated that had not previously been seen in the laboratory: When the two plasmas merged they broke into clumps of long thin filaments due to a process called the “Weibel instability.” This instability could be causing the turbulent magnetic fields that form the shock waves in space. Their research could shed light on the origin of primordial magnetic fields that formed when galaxies were created and could help researchers understand how cosmic rays are accelerated to high energies.

Magnetic reconnection in the laboratory

By: G. Fiksel (LLE), W. Fox, A. Bhattacharjee

Many plasmas in space already contain a strong magnetic field, so colliding plasmas there behave somewhat differently. Gennady Fiksel, of the University of Rochester, and William Fox continued their previous research by adding a magnetic field by pulsing current through very small wires. They then created the two colliding plumes of plasma as they did in an earlier experiment. When the two plasmas collided it compressed and stretched the magnetic field and a tremendous amount of energy accumulated in the field like a stretched rubber band. As the magnetic field lines pushed close together, the long lines broke apart and reformed like a single stretched rubber band, forming a slingshot that propels the plasma and releases the energy into the plasma, accelerating the plasma and heating it.

The experiment showed that the reconnection process happens faster than theorists had previously predicted. This could help shed light on solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which also happen extremely quickly. Coronal mass ejections can trigger geomagnetic storms that can interfere with satellites and wreak havoc with cellphone service.

The laser technique the scientists are using is new in the area of high energy density plasma and allows scientists to control the magnetic field to manipulate it in various ways. 



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