Scientists have discovered a new way to classify magnetized plasmas that could eventually lead to advancements in Earth’s harvest of fusion energy that powers the sun and stars. The discovery by theorists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) of the United States Department of Energy (DOE) revealed that a magnetized plasma has 10 unique phases, and the transitions between them could have rich implications for practical development.
The spatial boundaries, or transitions, between the different phases will support localized wave excitations, the researchers found. “These findings could lead to possible applications of these exotic excitations in space and laboratory plasmas,” said Yichen Fu, PPPL graduate student and lead author of a paper in Nature Communication which describes the research. “The next step is to explore what these excitations could do and how they could be used.”
Possible applications include the use of excitations to create current in magnetic fusion plasmas or the facilitation of plasma rotation in fusion experiments. However, “our article does not consider any practical application,” said physicist Hong Qin, co-author of the article and adviser to Fu. “The paper is the basic theory and the technology will follow the theoretical understanding.”
In fact, “the discovery of the 10 phases in plasma marks a primary development in plasma physics,” Qin said. “The first and foremost step in any scientific endeavor is to classify the objects under study. Any new classification scheme will lead to an improvement in our theoretical understanding and subsequent technological advancements,” he said.
Qin cites the discovery of the main types of diabetes as an example of the role classification plays in scientific advancement. “In developing treatments for diabetes, scientists found that there were three main types,” he said. “Now doctors can effectively treat diabetic patients. “
Fusion, which scientists around the world seek to produce on Earth, combines light elements in the form of plasma – the hot, charged state of matter made up of free electrons and atomic nuclei that make up 99% of the universe. visible – to release massive amounts of energy. Such energy could serve as a safe and clean source of energy to generate electricity.
The plasma phases that PPPL discovered are technically known as “topological phases”, indicating the waveforms supported by the plasma. This unique property of matter was first discovered in the discipline of condensed matter physics in the 1970s – a discovery for which physicist Duncan Haldane of Princeton University shared the 2016 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work.
Robust and intrinsic
The localized plasma waves produced by phase transitions are robust and intrinsic because they are “topologically protected,” Qin said. “The discovery that this topologically protected excitation exists in magnetized plasmas is a big step forward that can be explored for practical applications,” he said.
For the first author Fu, “The most important progress in the article is to study the plasma according to its topological properties and to identify its topological phases. Based on these phases, we identify the necessary and sufficient condition for the excitations of these localized waves. As to how these advances can be applied to facilitate fusion energy research, we have to find out. “
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Material provided by DOE / Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Original written by John Greenwald. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.