Students try out PPPL plasma physics experiment that can be accessed from anywhere in the world

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
March 13, 2014

Students at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in West Windsor, N.J. were enthralled when they watched a glowing pink plasma appear on a screen in their classroom in a video stream of PPPL’s Remote Glow Discharge Experiment (RGDX) five miles away.

The March 12 event marked the first public demonstration of an invention that fills a gap in online education by providing students anywhere in the world with a way to take part in an actual experiment online.

Students in one class shouted out, “Whoa!” when the plasma first appeared. “I think it’s really cool!” said Paige Kunkler, a senior. “It’s an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before.”

Online learning has become increasingly popular: Thousands of people are taking advantage of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) and a variety of online courses available at every level from K-12 to graduate-level courses, together with virtual simulations and YouTube science demonstrations. However, it is difficult to find a real online experiment like RGDX that anyone in the public can use from anywhere in the world.

An online physics experiment for students and teachers

While the high school is only a few miles from the Science Education Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in Plainsboro,  physicist Arturo Dominguez of PPPL’s Science Education Department, pointed out that the RGDX could just as easily be used by students in Japan. It can be used by anyone with access to a computer and can easily be accessed by physics teachers or as an experimental component of an online physics course.

“We’re very excited about what we’re unveiling,” Dominguez told the class. “It’s created specifically for students and those who are interested in science. We believe this is the next step in online education. It’s bringing the laboratory to students.”

Dominguez explained that the RGDX provides a hands-on way for students to learn about plasma  -- a hot, charged gas that is the fourth state of matter -- and observe what happens when they change the conditions in the machine through the online controls. Students using a personal computer can easily go to, sign on to the queue and get started with the experiment. 

The RGDX, developed by Dominguez and Andrew Zwicker, head of the Science Education Department, allows students to manipulate a plasma and make it glow inside a glass tube in a device located in the Science Education laboratory. Students see their results in real time through a streaming video of the plasma in the device and can see how the plasma changes as they use the controls to change the conditions inside the glass tube.

The tube is connected to a vacuum pump. It is encircled by two electromagnetic coils and connected to electrodes at either end of the device. Students can use the controls to change the pressure in the tube, the voltage between the electrodes and the strength of the magnetic field to create the plasma and to make it glow.

After the demonstration, Dominguez placed a video conference call that appeared on the screen to Liutauras Rusaitis, a software developer in the Science Education laboratory who works on the RGDX. Rusaitis showed the students the Science Education laboratory and the actual machine through a Google Hangout session.  “I was here when you were controlling the experiment and it felt sort of magical,” he said.

Taking students through easy and difficult physics topics

Dominguez pointed out that the online site guides students through the experiment, taking them from relatively easy concepts like,  “What is a plasma?” to more difficult concepts like, “What does the electromagnet do to the plasma?” The tasks themselves range from relatively simple ones as students set the controls to the suggested levels, to more advanced tasks in which students can determine how much voltage makes the plasma glow. In the process, students learn the physics of plasmas and of pressure, electrode voltage and electromagnets. All these concepts are related to the study of plasma physics at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where researchers are developing the science required to produce magnetic fusion as a clean and abundant source of energy for generating electricity.

“There’s nothing like it in the world,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of the Science Education Department, who developed the device with Dominguez and their students. "The idea of doing something similar for educational purposes has been around for some time, but this is the first prototype of a fully open remote-controlled laboratory available for learners of all backgrounds.  The best way to learn science is by doing, and this is the next step for online science education."

Both students and teachers were enthusiastic about the RGDX demonstration.  “I think it’s amazing,” said Barbara Fortunato, the high school physics teacher whose classes tried out the device. “I think it’s great to bring plasma as a topic to high school science because it really doesn’t appear anywhere else.”

High school junior Snigdha Kasi said the experiment brings a new dimension to her class. “We get taught about this stuff and this just opens it up and lets people look into something so much deeper,” she said.

The RGDX currently works on PC and Mac personal computers. Dominguez plans to add features that will allow users to access the site using tablets and smart phones.  Students were very interested in how the experiment will be developed in the future.  “I’m really excited to see where it goes from here,” Kasi said. “There are so many different possibilities!” 

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at and