November 3, 2017
Milwaukee - When researchers, academics and staff from the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) travel to the annual American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP) meeting, the halls of their Albany Street offices and laboratories are quieter for a week. Now in its 59th year, this largest meeting of plasma physicists provides MIT the opportunity to present research, acknowledge their colleagues accomplishments and even educate the local population about the value of plasmas in their everyday lives.
This year in Milwaukee that education started with an afternoon “Fusion Festival” at local Bay View High School. Engineering teacher Dana Timm was inspired to create this event after attending an APS-DPP site visit in Spring 2017 with members of the APS-DPP Education Outreach Committee, including PSFC communications and outreach coordinator Paul Rivenberg, and MIT alumnus Arturo Dominguez (PhD’12), now Science Education Senior Program Leader at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and DPP Education Chair. Provided with online resources and plasma curriculum over the summer, Timm brainstormed a science fair that would feature a fusion talk by Dominguez, and provide a vehicle for his class to study and teach various aspects of plasma research and related physics.
Rivenberg attended the event, along with PSFC graduate student Alex Tinguely, MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering administrator Valerie Censabella and others who were at the conference, each spending time with the students at their exhibits. Tinguely was impressed with the students’ work.
“They had only prepared for about a week, but were quite knowledgeable for their age about a range of topics: from gamma rays to plasmas to fusion reactors.”
A local TV station captured the pride and excitement of the students as they talked about science with people from MIT, Princeton and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Also supporting the event was the Milwaukee Fire Department hazmat unit, with demonstrations of the wave technologies they use to save lives.
This Fire Department was also a popular local addition to the APS-DPP Plasma Sciences Expo, held at the meeting every year to provide students and the general public the chance to observe physics demonstrations, and speak with researchers from around the country who are working with the latest plasma technologies. Rivenberg, who organizes the expo yearly, was pleased with the degree of local participation. The eighteen exhibitors included Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee and the UW-Madison, which due to proximity was able to bring a truckload of demonstrations that filled the back of the expo hall.
PSFC graduate students and staff manned multiple demonstrations at the MIT booth. Middle and high school students pressed buttons to contain hot plasma in a virtual fusion tokamak; released magnets down plastic, aluminum and copper inclines to study resistance; tested the UV protection of different sunscreens and sunglasses; and created their own glowing neon in a plasma sword. The expo attracted over 1000 students and teachers. The Expo, and the PSFC’s participation, is sponsored in part by the U.S Department of Energy, Office of Fusion Energy Sciences. It is part of a larger APS-DPP effort to help educate students and the general public about plasma, its nature and its potential.
Research scientist Phil Michael offers students a chance to test the effectiveness of their sunglasses, and of various sun screens, at his MIT booth.
While the educational activities at APS-DPP meetings have the greatest impact on the surrounding communities, most attendees are focused on the latest plasma research being pursued by laboratories around the world. The PSFC gave five invited talks on topics ranging from ITER, the next step fusion reactor being built in France, to inertial confinement fusion collaborations. The last day of the conference saw PSFC director Dennis Whyte providing “The Science and Technology Case for High-Field Fusion,” examining the two high-field tokamak strategies that emerged in the 1980s, and the new design opportunities provided by compact Rare Earth Barium Copper Oxide superconductors.
The meeting also provided occasions for celebrating research progress and successes.
PSFC division head Richard Petrasso, senior research scientist Chikang Li, and research scientist Fredrick Seguin were selected, along with three colleagues from other laboratories, to share the Dawson Award for “the pioneering use of proton radiography to reveal new aspects of flows, instabilities, and fields in high-energy-density (HED) plasmas.” Speaking at the awards ceremony, Petrasso acknowledged, on behalf of the recipients, their debt to their many collaborators, including those at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Petrasso noted, "We are pleased that this platform now supports, for the work of other scientists, more than 25 experimental shot days each year at the Omega Facility and at the National Ignition Facility. It is also rewarding to see that the 2014 and 2016 Rosenbluth Outstanding Thesis Awardees utilized this platform in their award winning research."
The PSFC looks forward to the next meeting in Portland, Oregon, where a year’s worth of scientific findings will be discussed and honored, while a new city has the chance to explore the fun of plasma science.
PSFC education program activities are sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Fusion Energy Science.