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UAH researchers win $750K grant for plasma ‘holy grail’

HUNTSVILLE – Mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty at the University of Alabama in Huntsville have won a pair of research awards totaling $750,000 to collaborate with the Los Alamos National Laboratory on research toward one of the most sought-after goals of plasma physics – plasma fusion energy.

This project marks the first experimental collaboration between the university and the Los Alamos lab helping to bring fusion and high energy density plasma research to UAH.

Dr. Gabriel Xu, associate professor, and Dr. Jason Cassibry, a professor affiliated with the UAH Propulsion Research Center, will be studying magnetized high-energy density plasma
interactions to advance plasma-jet magneto inertial fusion (PJMIF), a key component to
achieving breakeven fusion, which could one day lead to abundant clean energy.

“I am very much looking forward to doing research that can contribute in some small way to fusion research at UAH,” Xu said. “Plasma fusion is one of the holy grails in our field of
plasma physics and important for the world.”

Plasma is one of four fundamental states of matter and the most abundant form found in
the universe. It’s mostly associated with stars, which generate energy through nuclear fusion when protons of hydrogen atoms in their cores violently collide to fuse and form helium atoms.

Nuclear fusion has been a goal of scientists around the world since the 1950s. Unlike solar and wind power, the energy it produces is virtually limitless, and – unlike electricity generated by fission reactors, coal, oil, or natural gas – fusion energy requires no fossil fuels and leaves behind zero hazardous waste.

“The focus of our project is to look at the next step in the PJMIF approach, namely the
interaction of the plasma liner with the magnetized target plasma,” Xu said. “For fusion to
occur, the liner has to compression the target and convert its kinetic energy into thermal
energy and heat the plasma to fusion conditions.

“So, our small-scale test will be one step towards understanding the plasma interactions and energy conversion process that can inform the larger scale efforts of PJMIF.”

Advancing concepts on magnetized high-energy density plasma interactions has been a long-term goal for North Alabama researchers, Xu said.

“This work started at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center with Francis Thio and Richard
Eskridge as a propulsion program back in 1998,” he said. “Dr. Cassibry joined this team as a graduate student and conducted dissertation work on coaxial plasma guns, which could produce the jets.

“Subsequently, several DOE, Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) and NASA grants have supported the work, including the most recent ARPA-E Breakthroughs Enabling Thermonuclear-fusion Energy program.”

Cassibry said his colleague’s expertise is key for the program.

“Dr. Xu’s expertise in experimental plasmas, along with his recent work in studying interactions of plasma jets with magnetic fields, seemed to facilitate a perfect collaboration for the DOE opportunity,” he said.

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