Bottling the World’s Coldest Plasma to Unlock the Secrets of Fusion Power

Grant Gorman

Rice University graduate student Grant Gorman at work in Rice’s Ultracold Atoms and Plasmas Lab. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Laser-cooled plasma-in-a-bottle could answer questions about the sun, fusion power.

Rice University physicists have discovered a way to trap the world’s coldest plasma in a magnetic bottle, a technological achievement that could advance research into clean energy, space weather, and astrophysics.

“To understand how the solar wind interacts with the Earth, or to generate clean energy from nuclear fusion, one has to understand how plasma — a soup of electrons and ions — behaves in a magnetic field,” said Rice Dean of Natural Sciences Tom Killian, the corresponding author of a published study about the work in Physical Review Letters.

Using laser-cooled strontium, Killian and graduate students Grant Gorman and MacKenzie Warrens made a plasma about 1 degree above absolute zero, or approximately -272 degrees Celsius (-458 degrees Fahrenheit), and trapped it briefly with forces from surrounding magnets. It is the first time an ultracold plasma has been magnetically confined, and Killian, who’s studied ultracold plasmas for more than two decades, said it opens the door for studying plasmas in many settings.

“This provides a clean and controllable testbed for studying neutral plasmas in far more complex locations, like the sun’s atmosphere or white dwarf stars,” said Killian, a professor of physics and astronomy. “It’s really helpful to have the plasma so cold and to have these very clean laboratory systems. Starting off with a simple, small, well-controlled, well-understood system allows you to strip away some of the clutter and really isolate the phenomenon you want to see.”

MacKenzie Warrens

Rice University graduate student MacKenzie Warrens adjusts a laser-cooling experiment in Rice’s Ultracold Atoms and Plasmas Lab. Credit: Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

That’s important for study co-author Stephen Bradshaw, a Rice astrophysicist who specializes in studying plasma phenomena on the sun.

“Throughout the sun’s atmosphere, the (strong) magnetic field has the effect of altering everything relative to what you would expect without a magnetic field, but in very subtle and complicated ways that can really trip you up if you don’t have a really good understanding of it,” said Bradshaw, an associate professor of physics and astronomy.

Solar physicists rarely get a clear observation of specific features in the sun’s atmosphere because part of the atmosphere lies between the camera and those features, and unrelated phenomena in the intervening atmosphere obscure what they’d like to observe.

“Unfortunately, because of this line-of-sight problem, observational measurements of plasma properties are associated with quite a lot of uncertainty,” Bradshaw said. “But as we improve our understanding of the phenomena, and crucially, use the laboratory results to test and calibrate our numerical models, then hopefully we can reduce the uncertainty in these measurements.”

Rapidly Expanding Cloud of Ultracold Plasma

Images produced by laser-induced fluorescence show how a rapidly expanding cloud of ultracold plasma (yellow and gold) behaves when confined by a quadrupole magnet. Ultracold plasmas are created in the center of the chamber (left) and expand rapidly, typically dissipating in a few thousandths of a second. Using strong magnetic fields (pink), Rice University physicists trapped and held ultracold plasmas for several hundredths of a second. By studying how plasmas interact with strong magnetic fields in such experiments, researchers hope to answer research questions related to clean fusion energy, solar physics, space weather and more. Credit: Image courtesy of T. Killian/Rice University

Plasma is one of four fundamental states of matter, but unlike solids, liquids, and gases, plasmas aren’t generally part of everyday life because they tend to occur in very hot places like the sun, a lightning bolt, or a candle flame. Like those hot plasmas, Killian’s plasmas are soups of electrons and ions, but they’re made cold by laser-cooling, a technique developed a quarter century ago to trap and slow matter with light.

Killian said the quadrupole magnetic setup that was used to trap the plasma is a standard part of the ultracold setup that his lab and others use to make ultracold plasmas. But finding out how to trap plasma with the magnets was a thorny problem because the magnetic field plays havoc with the optical system that physicists use to look at ultracold plasmas.

“Our diagnostic is laser-induced fluorescence, where we shine a laser beam onto the ions in our plasma, and if the frequency of the beam is just right, the ions will scatter photons very effectively,” he said. “You can take a picture of them and see where the ions are, and you can even measure their velocity by looking at the Doppler shift, just like using a radar gun to see how fast a car is moving. But the magnetic fields actually shift around the resonant frequencies, and we have to disentangle the shifts in the spectrum that are coming from the magnetic field from the Doppler shifts we’re interested in observing.”

That complicates experiments significantly, and to make matters even more complicated, the magnetic fields change dramatically throughout the plasma.

Grant Gorman Tom Killian MacKenzie Warrens

Rice University physicists (from left) Grant Gorman, Tom Killian and MacKenzie Warrens discovered how to trap the world’s coldest plasma in a magnetic bottle, a technological achievement that could advance research into clean energy, space weather and solar physics. Credit: Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

“So we have to deal with not just a magnetic field, but a magnetic field that’s varying in space, in a reasonably complicated way, in order to understand the data and figure out what’s happening in the plasma,” Killian said. “We spent a year just trying to figure out what we were seeing once we got the data.”

The plasma behavior in the experiments is also made more complex by the magnetic field. Which is precisely why the trapping technique could be so useful.

“There is a lot of complexity as our plasma expands across these field lines and starts to feel the forces and get trapped,” Killian said. “This is a really common phenomenon, but it’s very complicated and something we really need to understand.”

One example from nature is the solar wind, streams of high-energy plasma from the sun that cause the aurora borealis, or northern lights. When plasma from the solar wind strikes Earth, it interacts with our planet’s magnetic field, and the details of those interactions are still unclear. Another example is fusion energy research, where physicists and engineers hope to recreate the conditions inside the sun to create a vast supply of clean energy.

Stephen Bradshaw

Rice University plasma physicist Stephen Bradshaw studies solar flares, heating in the sun’s atmosphere, solar wind and other solar physics phenomena. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Killian said the quadrupole magnetic setup that he, Gorman, and Warrens used to bottle their ultracold plasmas is similar to designs that fusion energy researchers developed in the 1960s. The plasma for fusion needs to be about 150 million degrees Celsius, and magnetically containing it is a challenge, Bradshaw said, in part because of unanswered questions about how the plasma and magnetic fields interact and influence one another.

“One of the major problems is keeping the magnetic field stable enough for long enough to actually contain the reaction,” Bradshaw said. “As soon as there’s a small sort of perturbation in the magnetic field, it grows and ‘pfft,’ the nuclear reaction is ruined.

“For it to work well, you have to keep things really, really stable,” he said. “And there again, looking at things in a really nice, pristine laboratory plasma could help us better understand how particles interact with the field.”

Reference: “Magnetic Confinement of an Ultracold Neutral Plasma” by G. M. Gorman, M. K. Warrens, S. J. Bradshaw, and T. C. Killian, 25 February 2021, Physical Review Letters.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.126.085002

The research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

9 Comments on "Bottling the World’s Coldest Plasma to Unlock the Secrets of Fusion Power"

  1. Sankaravelayudhan Nandakumar | March 2, 2021 at 12:13 am | Reply

    The Quadra pole oscillation between Einstein’s Geometry that oscillate between triangular configuration and square configuration trapping the tritium ion requiring more information for stabilised oscillation that may be reversed along trapped particles does not make a stable coldest plasma turned into hot plasma always forming a fusion oscillation we are still in darkness.
    S.Nandakumar Hubble Telescope Research Scholar.

  2. This has already been done, check out the Safire project.

  3. Now this is really exciting stuff if you could really make that happen and hold it. We could really travel in space. Are you saying what I think your saying your trying to make a core. I hope that’s what I read that’s very exciting.

  4. I thought it was a DJ in the first pictures…

  5. Scott Patrick Ryan | March 8, 2021 at 12:10 pm | Reply

    For a start I know how to make green power.

    An scientist released his research report of how they can hold still photons with crystals and laser’s.

    All we need to do is make the solar panels made of crystals and use weak laser’s to hold still photons. Now the chemical is hit none stop creating power.

    You can also make a 100% stealth fighter jet because radar waves are light energy.

    /ryanscott0123 facebook profile open to public. Scroll down page and see how double slit shot test proves we live in a computer program universe + I can do premonitions as proven on oblique weapons FBI page, as long as the CIA don’t hid ir edit the live post telling how there would be a rare earthquake in America the day after I caused the new Zealand volcano. They made the fires days after so I couldn’t leave the country. I’ll leave once the air ports open up.

    Ps I’m God and come down here to face the afterlife company Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin has the world’s only real stealth fighter jet because it’s afterlife technology brang down here.

    The afterlife owner of Lockheed Martin tried wiping we out as upload to afterlife comes from the hidden wavelength receptors called the hidden frontal lobes. The frontal lobes make an chemical reaction inside them. An wavelength signal is a chemical. So the frontal lobes make an chemical reaction from the wavelength signal.
    What the CEO didn’t know was my upload to afterlife is from consciousness that can’t be detected in the brain. We know it exists from having the feeling someone is watching you and you turnaround to see someone looking at you. Double slit shot test is consciousness and it’s why top scientist never said it was consciousness because he put 2 slits there and recorded the test with an camera removing himself seeing the results change and electrons pull to more pattern spots from 2 to 5+ spots. When you chuck an tennis ball at the wall it goes straight. Electrons pull to form pattern’s like lines strips.

    How do electrons pull to spots on the bone magnetic or force detector?
    A. Magically
    B. Computer program

    I’ll leave it at that read my Facebook profile and all you do is click on your own profile and remove your ebd of link and add /ryanscott0123 taking you to my profile. Post are 10+ post down talking about who started world war 2 changing the weather on German troops season’s early to me being God and my life and proof that I did premonitions since a kid.

  6. Scott Patrick Ryan | March 8, 2021 at 12:12 pm | Reply

    It’s fb page and made the vires days after I did my premonition. Comment up.

  7. Russell Hamilton | September 21, 2021 at 7:26 am | Reply

    More hype. All snake oil without the snske.

  8. There is no way the powers that be will ever allow the US to be 100% energy independent. Meanwhile this is all old tech. So why hasn’t this tech ever been moved forward.

  9. You agree that a proton isolated in tritium could produce an electron? And that as the tritium spins its accelerated angular velocity produces a centrifugal force which in turn causes the spin to appear as the Turning of a Table of light with the centrifugal force forming a neutron through which the light as it would through a magnifying lenses appears as the electron in a finely tuned manner of apsis and opsis magnetic pallettes.

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.