Tag Archives: plasma

Fusion breakthrough brings us one step closer to solving key challenges

A worker doing maintenance work inside the reactor.

In fusion power, two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. The process takes place in a fusion reactor and, at least in theory, this energy can be harnessed; but the practical aspects are extremely challenging.

An important problem for fusion reactors is maintaining the plasma core extremely hot (hotter than the surface of the sun), while also safely containing the plasma — something fusion researchers refer to as “core-edge integration”. Researchers working at the DIII-D tokamak at the National Fusion Facility managed to make the fusion core even hotter, while also safely cooling the material that reaches the reactor wall.

Somewhat like the conventional combustion engine, a fusion reactor must also exhaust heat and particles. A key strategy to cool down the plasma core is to inject impurities (particles heavier than the plasma) into the exhaust region — but these same impurities can travel into regions where fusion reactions are occurring , reducing overall performance.

Previously, these impurities were in the form of a gas. However, in a new study, researchers found that a particular chemical mixture in the form of a powder offers several advantages.

The powder consists of boron, boron nitride, and lithium, and it was trialed at the DIII-D tokamak reactor. A tokamak is a type of fusion reactor that uses magnetic fields in a donut shape to confine the plasma — something called a high-confinement mode, or H mode. Experiments showed that the powder was effective at cooling the plasma boundary while only producing a marginal decrease in fusion performance.

“Our work is important because it shows new ways to achieve high-pressure core plasmas (H-Mode and Super-H Mode) while keeping the boundary cold enough to avoid melting and damaging the reactor walls,” explains Florian Effenberg of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, co-author of the new study “The injection of boron, boron nitride, and lithium powders into boundary plasma dissipates the power before it can reach wall components. Thereby, we can achieve both at a time, a super hot core plasma that can produce fusion energy and a cold boundary that allows safe and long-pulse operation of the reactor. “

Although the DIII-D is a relatively small tokamak, the experimental results along with theoretical simulations suggest that the approach is also compatible with larger devices like ITER, the international tokamak under construction in France, and would facilitate a core-edge integration solution in future fusion power plants.

“This is an important step integration solutions for safe heat exhaust and high-performance operation. Further assessments and optimization are, of course, necessary,” Effenberg concludes.

This approach could be instrumental in addressing the core-edge integration in future fusion power plants. So what does this mean for fusion power in general? It’s hard to make any clear estimates, says Effenberg, but the positive signs are there. The development of fusion reactors resembles that of microprocessors in computers. Just like there’s Moore’s law for microprocessors (which observes that the number of transistors in a microprocessor has doubled every two years) there’s a “Moore’s law for fusion”, in which the ‘triple product’ of density, temperature and confinement time (which measures the performance of a fusion plasma) has doubled every 1.8 years.

“Generally, we are on track and make progress according to “Moore’s law for fusion”, which shows that a demonstration fusion power plant is in reach within the next decade. The last meters are tough, but after a hunger period, there will finally be a wave of new and upgraded fusion machines coming online, flooding the last critical gaps in our knowledge with data,” Effenberg concludes.

Results will be presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics.

University in Idaho warns its students to stop trying to catch COVID-19 to sell their plasma

Most of us here can agree that we wouldn’t say no to some extra pocket money. We’d also likely agree that helping to heal the sick, especially during times such as these, is also a good cause. But some college students in Idaho may have mixed the two a bit too much, according to local outlet KIVI-TV.

Image credits Ken Lund / Flickr.

The Brigham Young University (BYU) Idaho recently put out a statement condemning a “deeply troubling” trend among its student body. According to the institution, some students may be intentionally trying to become infected with the coronavirus in order to overcome the disease and sell antibody-laden plasma.

Premium plasma

“Students who are determined to have intentionally exposed themselves or others to the virus will be immediately suspended from the university and may be permanently dismissed,” BYU-Idaho explained in a statement.

The story likely began with local plasma centers saying they will pay extra for the blood of donors who have COVID-19 antibodies in their system. This move was prompted by the fact that Madison County (where the university is located) has the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the county; last week, it was listed as a High-Risk area. As of Sunday evening, there were 326 active cases of COVID-19 in Madison County.

Convalescent plasma, which is harvested from people that have successfully fought off a COVID-19 infection, can be used to treat patients with the antibodies it contains. Transfusion centers in the area are thus making an effort to encourage former patients to donate, so that as many lives can be saved as possible.

Since then, the University has been receiving “reports of students […] intentionally exposing themselves to COVID-19” in order to sell convalescent plasma, according to KIVI-TV. A news release explains that the institution is “deeply troubled” by and strongly “condemns” this behavior, adding that it is “actively seeking evidence of any such conduct among [the] student body”.

“The contraction and spread of COVID-19 is not a light matter. Reckless disregard for health and safety will inevitably lead to additional illness and loss of life in our community,” it explained. “As BYU-Idaho previously cautioned, if recent trends in Idaho and Madison County continue, the university may be forced to move to a fully-remote instruction model.”

While seeking to get infected in the pandemic isn’t exactly responsible, or very smart, behavior, BYU acknowledges that “the physical, emotional, and financial strain of this pandemic is very real” on students, and that it is prepared to offer help.

Exactly how the BYU plans to determine which students actively sought out infection and which of them contracted COVID-19 unwittingly is still unclear. The story also raises questions regarding tuition fees in the wider USA. This could be seen as students feeling they lack viable alternatives to pay for their college, especially in today’s labor market — as one Reddit comment put it, they “gotta pay that tuition somehow”.

Alternatively, some could be doing it just as an easy way to make a quick buck. Regardless of the underlying intent, I think we can all agree that it endangers both them and the wider community. We all want to educate ourselves to the best of our ability, and we all like to pad up that bank account, but intentionally harming our health and potentially the lives of those around us shouldn’t be a way to pay for either. 

Plasma from recovered patients seems to destroy coronavirus infections

During this pandemic, we’ve come to see that our health is directly impacted by those around us. A new study reveals that it’s the same story in regards to healing those already infected.

Blood plasma.
Image via Wikimedia.

Preliminary data from an ongoing study shows that treating infected individuals with convalescent plasma (plasma obtained from cured patients) is both safe and effective at combating the virus. The study was conducted at Houston Methodist, US, and involves over 300 patients.

Blood bond

“Our studies to date show the treatment is safe and in a promising number of patients, effective,” said corresponding author Dr. James Musser, chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist.

“While convalescent plasma therapy remains experimental and we have more research to do and data to collect, we now have more evidence than ever that this century-old plasma therapy has merit, is safe and can help reduce the death rate from this virus.”

Houston Methodist was the first academic medical center in the US to trial convalescent plasma transfusions in March. The current study tracked the state of severely ill COVID-19 patients admitted to the eight Houston Methodist hospitals between 28 March and 6 July.

Patients were tracked for 28 days after receiving a transfusion and their evolution compared to that of a group of control patients (who received treatment but no plasma transfusions).

Those who received plasma from healed patients had the highest concentrations of antibodies that could attack SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the pandemic, out of all the patients in this study. They were also more likely to survive the infection than similar patients who had received no transfusions. The transfusions were most effective when administered within 72 hours of hospitalization.

This isn’t the only study to look into the benefits of plasma transfusions against COVID-19. It is an old medical procedure that has been used time and time again against infectious diseases (blood plasma carries natural antibodies); although it doesn’t work for every one, it’s still useful.

So far, plasma transfusions seem to be effective against the pandemic, but we’re yet to prove it beyond a doubt — these are just preliminary findings, after all.

But if we do find out that they’re effective beyond a doubt, those who have recovered from the disease will be in high demand at blood donation centers.

The study “Treatment of COVID-19 Patients with Convalescent Plasma Reveals a Signal of Significantly Decreased Mortality” has been published in the American Journal of Pathology.

Plasma globe.

Solar plasma observations bring us one step closer to stable fusion generators

An international research effort brings us one step closer to unlocking fusion power on Earth.

Plasma globe.

A plasma globe toy.
Image via Pixabay.

The team of researchers, comprised of members from Ireland and France, used ground-based radio telescopes and ultraviolet cameras mounted on a NASA spacecraft to peer into the unseen workings of the Sun. Their observations give us a better understanding into how and why plasma becomes unstable. With this data in hand, researchers will hopefully be able to better control plasma down on Earth and potentially tame it into a clean, safe, and extremely powerful energy source.

Abundant, but not with us

“We worked closely with scientists at the Paris Observatory and performed observations of the Sun with a large radio telescope located in Nançay in central France,” says Dr. Eoin Carley, a postdoc at Trinity College Dublin and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS), who led the research

“We combined the radio observations with ultraviolet cameras on NASA’s space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft to show that plasma on the sun can often emit radio light that pulses like a light-house. We have known about this activity for decades, but our use of space and ground-based equipment allowed us to image the radio pulses for the first time and see exactly how plasmas become unstable in the solar atmosphere.”

We’re used to thinking of matter as predominantly being gaseous, liquid, solid, and a smattering of other rare and exotic states. That might be the case on Earth, but in the Universe at large, plasma is definitely the most abundant state of matter. Stars are huge things, and they’re mostly plasma, for example — our Sun included.

Plasma is a very energetic, very unstable electrically charged fluid. Conditions on our planet are simply too tame for it to pop up, so it’s extremely scarce and hard to study. Specialized laboratories that can recreate the extreme conditions of space are needed to properly study it. However, the team came up with a better plan: to just look at what the huge ball of plasma in the sky is doing. The Sun, they argue, gives us a chance to study how this state of matter behaves in conditions that are too extreme for any laboratory we’ve ever built.

“The solar atmosphere is a hotbed of extreme activity,” Dr. Carley adds, “with plasma temperatures in excess of 1 million degrees Celsius and particles that travel close to light-speed. The light-speed particles shine bright at radio wavelengths, so we’re able to monitor exactly how plasmas behave with large radio telescopes.”

The team used radio telescopes across Europe and ultraviolet cameras mounted on NASA spacecraft to observe solar plasma and compare its behavior to that of plasma we’ve generated. They hope that their data will help us design efficient magnetic confinement systems for our fusion reactors — these are the things that will keep plasma from liquefying out reactors’ walls. Successfully designing a working fusion reactor wouldn’t be a mean feat at all; these reactors are miles ahead of our current tech in terms of output, safety, and cleanliness.

“Nuclear fusion is a different type of nuclear energy generation that fuses plasma atoms together,” says Professor at DIAS and collaborator on the project, Peter Gallagher, “as opposed to breaking them apart like fission does. Fusion is more stable and safer, and it doesn’t require highly radioactive fuel; in fact, much of the waste material from fusion is inert helium.”

“The only problem is that nuclear fusion plasmas are highly unstable. As soon as the plasma starts generating energy, some natural process switches off the reaction. While this switch-off behaviour is like an inherent safety switch — fusion reactors cannot form runaway reactions — it also means the plasma is difficult to maintain in a stable state for energy generation. By studying how plasmas become unstable on the Sun, we can learn about how to control them on Earth.”

The paper “Loss-cone instability modulation due to a magnetohydrodynamic sausage mode oscillation in the solar corona” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Nonthermal reactor.

Cold plasma reactor neutralizes 99.9% of airborne viruses in new study

New research is looking into how we can better protect sterile environments from airborne viruses.

Nonthermal reactor.

Professor Herek Clack (left) and members of his team set up a lab-scale non-thermal plasma device that has previously been proven to achieve greater than 99% inactivation of an airborne viral surrogate, MS2 phage, a virus that infects E.coli bacteria at the Barton Farms family pig farm in Homer, MI.
Image credits Robert Coelius / Michigan Engineering

Nonthermal plasmas — ionized, charged particles formed around electrical discharges such as sparks — are very, very good at rendering airborne viruses harmless, a new study reports. This approach could help us better keep environments such as surgery rooms clean of pathogens, the authors explain, and might even render the surgical mask obsolete.

Sparkly fresh

“The most difficult disease transmission route to guard against is airborne because we have relatively little to protect us when we breathe,” said paper co-author Herek Clack, a research associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan.

Exposure to nonthermal plasmas, however, could be just the guard we need. In their study, the team crafted a nonthermal plasma reactor which was able to remove 99.9% of a test virus the researchers pumped through. Best of all, the whole process only took a fraction of a second to complete. The vast majority of the virus sample was rendered harmless due to inactivation, the team notes, with a sliver of the bugs getting scrubbed out of the airstream thanks to good old fashioned filtration.

The reactor used in this study looks suspiciously like a piece of pipe because it is. The real magic happens inside. The team packed borosilicate glass into a cylindrical-shaped bed, which they placed inside the reactor. Then, they pumped a model virus (one harmless to humans) inside the rig, forcing the virus to pass through the spaces between the beads. Then, they started the reactor.

“In those void spaces, you’re initiating sparks,” Clack said. “By passing through the packed bed, pathogens in the air stream are oxidized by unstable atoms called radicals.”

“What’s left is a virus that has diminished ability to infect cells.”

The team tracked the amount of viral genome present in the air coming out of the reactor to gauge how it went about neutralizing the pathogens. These measurements revealed that more than 99% of the air sterilizing effect was due to inactivating the virus that was present, with the remainder of the effect due to filtering the virus from the air stream.

This two pronged-attack that combines filtration with inactivation is likely much more efficient than currently-available air sterilization techniques, the team reports, such as the use of filtration or ultraviolet light. That’s because these other approaches rely on a single sterilization method masks, for example, only employ filtration. Even the use of ultraviolet irradiation falls short, they explain, as it can’t sterilize a volume of air as quickly, thoroughly, or compactly as the nonthermal plasma reactor.

“The results tell us that nonthermal plasma treatment is very effective at inactivating airborne viruses,” said Krista Wigginton, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a co-author of the study. “There are limited technologies for air disinfection, so this is an important finding.”

The team has started a second phase of testing its reactor. They installed it to the ventilation air streams at a livestock farm near Ann Arbor, where they hope the nonthermal plasma will prove its worth in stomping out contagious livestock diseases such as avian influenza. Fingers crossed!

The paper, “Inactivation of airborne viruses using a packed bed non-thermal plasma reactor,” has been published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.

Hand Plasma Lamp.

New theoretical framework will keep our fusion reactors from going ‘boom’

New theoretical work finally paves the way to viable fusion reactors and abundant energy for all.

Hand Plasma Lamp.

Hand touching a plasma lamp.
Image credits Jim Foley.

A team of physicists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) at Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus, New Jersey, may have finally solved a long-standing problem in physics — how to tame fusion for energy production. Their work lays down the groundwork needed to stabilize the temperature and density levels of plasma in fusion reactors, an issue that plagued past efforts in this field.

Wild and energetic

Plasma is one of the four natural states of matter. That may sound confusing since we’re all thought that stuff is either a gas, a liquid, or a solid, but there’s a good explanation for this: plasma is such a violent and energetic state of matter that it simply doesn’t exist freely on Earth. It is, however, the stuff that most stars are made of.

Think of plasma as a soup, only instead of veggies, it’s full of protons and electrons (essentially, highly-energized hydrogen atoms) that smack together to create helium. For a less-culinary explanation, see here. This process requires a lot of energy to get going — you need to heat the hydrogen to about 100 million degrees Celsius — but will generate monumental amounts of energy if you manage to keep it running.

It’s easy to understand, then, why fusion is often hailed as the harbinger of infinite, free energy for everybody — ever. So far, we’ve successfully recreated plasma in fusion reactors — the donut-shaped tokamaks or funky stellarators, for example — but we’ve yet to find a way of keeping this super-heated soup of charged particles stable for more than a few seconds.

One of the biggest hurdles we’ve encountered is that plasma in fusion reactors tends to fluctuate wildly in terms of temperature and density. Such turbulence is very dangerous, as any inkling of runaway plasma will eat through a reactor’s wall like a lightsaber through butter. Faced with such odds, researchers have little choice but to shut down experimental reactions before they run amok.

Plasma MAST Tokamak.

Plasma confined in the MAST tokamak at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the UK. Magnetic field lines that combine to act like an invisible bottle for the plasma.
Image credits ITER / CCFE.

The most frustrating thing is that we know what we have to do, but not how to do it. We need to contain the plasma in an orderly fashion and keep the reaction going long enough for it to start being net-energy-positive — i.e. generate more energy than we put in.

Stars can cash in on their sheer mass to press plasma into playing nice, but we don’t have that luxury. Instead, we use massively-powerful magnetic fields (some 20,000 times stronger than that of the Earth) to keep it away from the reactor’s walls.

Go with the flow

This is where the present paper comes in. Certain types of plasma flows (like those inside stars) have been found to be very stable over time, without dangerous turbulence. We didn’t know how to make plasma flow like this, but the PPPL researchers report it comes down to a mechanism called magnetic flux pumping forcing the flow at the core of the plasma body to stay stable.

According to the flow simulations the team ran, magnetic flux pumping can take place in hybrid scenarios — a mix of the standard flow regimes currently known from theoretical and experimental models. These standard regimes include high-confinement mode (H-mode) and low-confinement mode (L-mode).

In L-mode, an electrically-balanced scenario — meaning it has a perfect ratio of positive to negative charged-particles — formed at lower temperatures, turbulence allows the plasma to leak away some of its energy. L-mode is unstable as high-temperature plasma at the core is thrown out to the surface, destabilizing the reaction. If this mode can be surpassed and the reaction enters H-mode, the overall temperature of the plasma body is increased and the reaction stabilizes. H-mode is an energy-imbalanced mode, but the plasma is kept stable and confined by electrical fields it itself generates (T. Kobayashi et al., Nature, 2016).

In a hybrid scenario, however, the flow is kept orderly only at the plasma body’s core. This generates an effect similar to that encountered inside the Earth, the team reports, where the solid iron core acts as a ‘mixer’, generating a magnetic field. The interactions between this field, the one applied by the generator, and the two types of plasma flow stabilize the reaction.

Even better, this magnetic flux pumping mechanism is self-regulating, the simulations show. If the mixer becomes too strong, the plasma’s current drops just below the point where it would go haywire.

And, even better #2, the authors suggest that ITER — widely held to be the most ambitious nuclear fusion project, currently under construction in Provence, France — may be suited to experiment with developing magnetic flux pumping by using the same hardware it employs to heat up the plasma.

The paper “Magnetic flux pumping in 3D nonlinear magnetohydrodynamic simulations” has been published in the journal Physics of Plasmas.

James Harrison.

Australia’s ‘Man with the Golden Arm’ retires after saving 2.4 million babies — urges people to “break his record”

One Australian is taking a well-deserved retirement — after saving 2.4 million babies.

James Harrison.

James Harrison.
Image credits Australian Red Cross Blood Service / Facebook.

James Harrison, an 81-year-old Australian man whose blood contains a rare and priceless antibody has donated his last bag of plasma. Despite being a few months over the legal age limit for donors, Harrison has been allowed one final transfusion on Friday, both in recognition of his merits, and, likely, in a testament to just how valuable his blood is — Harrison’s transfusions helped save the lives of some 2.4 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.


The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Harrison has donated regularly for more than six decades, between the age of 18 to 81. Over the years, he donated 1,173 times, 1,163 from his right arm, and 10 from his left one.

His drive to donate has its roots in Harrison’s own medical history. At the age of 14, he had one lung removed, and required multiple transfusions. After receiving 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of blood, roughly 13 transfusion units, Harrison became aware of just how important donating is — and decided he would pitch in.

“I was in the hospital for three months and I had 100 stitches,” he recalls. “I was always looking forward to donating, right from the operation, because I don’t know how many people it took to save my life. I never met them, didn’t know them.”

After he started donating blood at the age of 18, doctors discovered that his plasma had a rare component that could save infant lives. That component is an antibody known as Rho(D) immune globulin, which is essentially priceless for doctors. Here’s why.

When a woman with Rh-negative blood is pregnant with an Rh-positive fetus, both are at risk from ‘Rh incompatibility’ — the mother’s body can have an immune reaction to and attack the infant’s blood cells, putting it at risk. The disease causes multiple miscarriages, stillbirths, and brain damage or fatal anemia in newborns.

The antibodies persist between pregnancies and can jeopardize future pregnancies as well. The first treatment for Rh incompatibility was developed in the 1960s, and it’s based entirely on this Rho(D) immune globulin. Harrison just happened to be one person who naturally produced this antibody — and his body produced a lot of it.

“Very few people have the these antibodies in such strong concentrations,” Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Donor Service, told the Herald. “His body produces a lot of them, and when he donates his body produces more.”

Harrison switched to donating plasma as often as the Blood Service would allow him. His donations allowed millions of Australian women to undergo the treatment they needed to keep their pregnancies healthy.

Despite significant efforts to synthesize the antibody in a lab setting, donors remain our only source of Rho(D) remains. The antibodies are most often seen in some women with Rh-incompatible pregnancies — but the more wide-spread treatment against the condition becomes, the fewer mothers get a chance to develop Rho(D). Some Rh-negative men agree to be exposed to Rh-positive blood in a bid to become donors and fill the supply gap. Finally, a small number of people develop the antibodies after accidentally receiving a transfusion of the wrong kind of blood. Harrison, one of only 200 Rho(D) donors in Australia, is likely one of the latter cases.

His dedication to donating blood, and all the lives his plasma helped save, have earned him the moniker of “Man with the Golden Arm” and a place in the Guinness Book of Records. He’s now too old to be allowed to donate further — and says it’s time for other people to step up.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re a hero,’ ” he told NPR. “But I’m in a safe room, donating blood. They give me a cup of coffee and something to nibble on. And then I just go on my way. No problem, no hardship.”

“I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks,” Harrison told the Blood Service, referring to the impressive number of donations under his belt.

What’s up with Steve: A new kind of aurora demystified by scientists

Few things compare to the dazzling light show performed by nature’s northern and southern lights — but they’re not alone. It was only in the past few years that a new type of aurora was found. Thanks to the watchful eye of citizen scientists and photographers, we can now add to programme an exquisite short-lived shimmering purple ribbon of plasma called Steve. Meanwhile, scientists have had time to carefully study the phenomenon in an attempt to learn what makes it tick.

The Aurora Named STEVE

A band of dedicated Canadian aurora chasers was among the first who took pictures of Steve. The aurora feature was first posted on the Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers in 2016 and, initially, most thought they were looking at a ‘proton arc’ — another rare type of aurora, which isn’t caused by electrons hitting Earth’s magnetic field but by more massive protons following a solar flare.

Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary was one of the first scientists who probed Steve, a 25 to 30 kilometer (15 to 18 miles) wide arc that aligns east-west and can extend over hundreds of miles. He recognized that this wasn’t a proton arc for a number of reasons, including the fact that a proton aurora is hardly visible.

Meet Steve. Image: Dave Markel Photography.

Donovan called some colleagues, and soon enough people like Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, sent ESA’s Swarm magnetic field mission through Steve. Swarm is a constellation of satellites tasked with studying Earth’s magnetic field. The instruments recorded accelerated and heated charged particles coming from the sun, which physicists found that they interact with a particular part of the Earth’s magnetic field in the ionosphere. So, rather than a proton arc, Macdonald and colleagues associate Steve with a so-called “subauroral ion drift,” they wrote in a new paper published in Science Advances on Wednesday. This occurs 60 degrees above the equator, where the global electric and magnetic fields align, making ions and electrons fly rapidly from east to west.

These rather rare auroras last only an hour and must coincide with space weather, specifically an ejection of charged particles from the sun. And instead of red, green, or yellow auroras shaped in mesmerizing curtains, Steve forms a ribbon across the sky that looks purplish in color. Sometimes, as some lucky photographers found, Steve also features small green picket fence-like arcs.

Most recently, Steve has been sighted in Scotland, from near Oban in Argyll and Gairloch in Wester Ross. Other places where Steve has been spotted so far include the UK, Canada, Alaska, northern US states, and New Zealand.

Credit: Catalin Tapardel‎, Alberta Aurora Chasers.

To legitimize Steve in academia, the researchers also found a clever backronym for Steve: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. Originally, the people who first discovered the new aurora called it Steve in honor of the children’s movie Over the Hedge, in which a character arbitrarily conjures up the name Steve to describe an object he’s not sure about.

NASA is now calling on citizen scientists and photographers to help research Steve by reporting any sightings to the Aurorasaurus project. If you live in the right latitude, this might be your chance to make a huge contribution to science.

“Because this is a new way of observing a phenomenon linked to space, it provides a new way to study it,” Vassilis Angelopoulos, a space physicist at UCLA not involved in the study, told National Geographic. “Citizen scientists can also be involved in triangulating them and determining their altitudes.

Three Old Scientific Concepts Getting a Modern Look

If you have a good look at some of the underlying concepts of modern science, you might notice that some of our current notions are rooted in old scientific thinking, some of which originated in ancient times. Some of today’s scientists have even reconsidered or revamped old scientific concepts. We’ve explored some of them below.

4 Elements of the Ancient Greeks vs 4 Phases of Matter

The ancient Greek philosopher and scholar Empedocles (495-430 BC) came up with the cosmogenic belief that all matter was made up of four principal elements: earth, water, air, and fire. He further speculated that these various elements or substances were able to be separated or reconstituted. According to Empedocles, these actions were a result of two forces. These forces were love, which worked to combine, and hate, which brought about a breaking down of the elements.

What scientists refer to as elements today have few similarities with the elements examined by the Greeks thousands of years ago. However, Empedocles’ proposed quadruplet of substances bares resemblance to what we call the four phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. The phases are the different forms or properties material substances can take.

Water in two states: liquid (including the clouds), and solid (ice). Image via Wikipedia.

Compare Empedocles’ substances to the modern phases of matter. “Earth” would be solid. The dirt on the ground is in a solid phase of matter. Next comes water which is a liquid; water is the most common liquid on Earth. Air, something which surrounds us constantly in our atmosphere, is a gaseous form of matter.

And lastly, we come to fire. Fire has fascinated human beings for time beyond history. Fire is similar to plasma in that both generate electromagnetic radiation such as light. Most flames you see in your everyday life are not hot enough to be considered plasma. They are typically considered gaseous. A prime example of an area where plasma is formed is the sun. The ancient four elements have an intriguing correspondent in modern science.

Ancient Concept of Dome Sky vs. Simulation Hypothesis

Millennia ago, people held the notion that his world was flat. Picture a horizontal cooking sheet with a transparent glass bowl set on top of it. Primitive people thought of the Earth in much the same way. They considered the land itself as flat and the sky as a dome. However, early Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BC) — who is also known for formulating the Pythagorean theorem — understood that Earth was actually spherical.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Now scientists are considering the scientific concept of the dome once again but in a much more complex manner.

Regardless of what conspiracy lovers would have you believe, the human race has ventured into outer space, leaving the face of the Earth to travel to the stars. In the face of all our achievements, some scientists actually question if reality is real, a mindboggling and apparently laughable idea.

But some scientists have wondered if we could be existing in a computer simulation. The gap between science and science fiction starts to become very fine when considering this.

This idea calls to mind classic sci-fi plots such as those frequently played out in The Twilight Zone in which everything the characters take as real turns out to be something entirely unexpected. You might also remember the sequence in Men in Black in which the audience sees that the entire universe is inside an alien marble. Bill Nye even uses the dome as an example in discussing hypothetical virtual reality. This gives one the feeling that he is living in a snowglobe.

Medieval Alchemy vs. Modern Chemistry

The alchemists of the Middle Ages attempted to prove that matter could be transformed from one object into an entirely new object. One of their fondest goals they wished to achieve was the creation of gold from a less valuable substance. They were dreaming big, but such dreams have not yet come to fruition. Could it actually be possible to alter one type of matter into another?

Well, modern chemists may be well on their way to achieving this feat some day. They are pursuing the idea of converting light into matter, as is expressed in Albert Einstein’s famous equation. Since 2014, scientists have been claiming that such an operation would be quite feasible, especially with extant technology.

Einstein’s famous equation.

Light is made up of photons, and a contraption capable of performing the conversion has been dubbed “photon-photon collider.” Though we might not be able to transform matter into other matter in the near future, it looks like the light-to-matter transformation has a bright outlook.

The plasma rock -- a sustainable material made from landfill waste.

Eco-designer turns landfill waste into ‘plasma rock’ — a sustainable, all-purpose material

Dutch designer Inge Sluijs has found a creative solution that might partly solve our waste problems, all while providing us with a sustainable material. How so? Well, Sluijs has basically blasted waste collected from landfills with plasma hotter than the surface of the sun. What you end up with is a hard, rock-like material that can be used to fashion all sorts of eco-friendly goods. Plasma, waste removal, and sustainable materials all at the same time? Now that’s something that ZME Science loves!

The plasma rock -- a sustainable material made from landfill waste.

The plasma rock — a sustainable material made from landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs

Where humans go, trash is never far behind — not even in space. Even remote, supposedly pristine locations, where humans haven’t set foot in decades, haven’t been spared. To find the epitome of modern-day consumerism and unlawful waste, one doesn’t need to roam too far. That’s landfills. These enormous stockpiles of human-sourced waste that we force-feed into the soil grow larger and larger by the moment. In some places, like close to coastlines, landfills can be likened to ticking time bombs waiting to unleash a fury of pollution onto marine life.

The designer turned coastal landfill waste into a rock-like sustainable material. Credit: Inge Sluijs

Coastline landfills are precisely where Sluijs decided to start sourcing material for her plasma rock. In a fully mechanized and automated plant, landfill waste is transported across a conveyer belt to a gasifier where all junk is heated at 800 degrees Celsius, turning everything into gas. Next in the loop is the pacifier where the gas is superheated to 1,500 degrees Celsius and blasted with plasma –– ionized gas that can generate a magnetic field and, also, the stuff lightnings are made of. The plasma torch itself can reach temperatures in excess of 5,500 degrees Celsius, or hotter than the sun’s corona.

Left to right: plasma rock, waste turned into powder for gassification, starting landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs.

Left to right: plasma rock, waste turned into powder for gasification, starting landfill waste. Credit: Inge Sluijs.

The intense heat breaks down the gasified waste into atomic elements. At the end of the gasification process, you end up with a slag that Sluijs called the plasma rock. Once it cools, the slag is fully vitrified, taking on a rock-like appearance and sharp edges. Its chemical composition depends on the type of waste used but mainly, the rock is made of silica, lime, and alumina, with a mix of elements and compounds like titanium, magnesium, sodium oxide, iron oxide, phosphate, and potassium.

Tests run so far always render syngas (a potential fuel), heat (which can be recirculated to increase efficiency) and the plasma rock — that’s regardless of the waste material be it leftover food, plastic or baby diapers.  About 100 kg of landfill waste will result in 20 kg of plasma rock.

“While the coastal historic landfill waste was toxic the Plasma Rock is virtually un-bleachable that means that any hazardous materials are inert and will not dissolve out of the material,” Sluijs wrote on her website.

“The quality of this nearly undiscovered material is that it is mechanically strong, very dense and environmentally stable.”

To demonstrate the practicality of this durable, non-toxic material, Sluijs and collaborators have made all sorts of useful goods out of the plasma rock. For instance, waste from the East Tilbury landfill located in Essex, England, was turned into decorated Tilbury Tiles which currently sell as souvenirs around town.

plasma rock

Credit: Inge Sluijs

She’s also made glass vases decorated with plasma rock specks, showing landfill waste can have a second life in your living room.

Plasma Rock

Credit: Inge Suijs.

Credit: Stanford University / Prakesh Lab.

Paper centrifuge can separate blood into plasma in under two minutes, all manually. It weighs 2 grams and costs ¢20

Credit: Stanford University / Prakesh Lab.
Credit: Stanford University / Prakesh Lab.

Using cardboard discs, fishing line, drinking straws and some glue, researchers from Stanford devised a blood separating centrifuge that’s almost as effective as lab-grade equipment. it can separate blood samples into corpuscles and plasma in less than two minutes and the cost — well you’ve seen what it’s made of.

Low-tech, high impact

This ‘poor man’s centrifuge’ should prove extremely useful in developing countries, particularly regions in Africa where some centrifuges are used are doorstops since there’s rarely electricity to power them, according to Manu Prakash, a physical biologist at Stanford University in California and a 2016 MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner.

“There are more than a billion people around the world who have no infrastructure, no roads, no electricity. I realized that if we wanted to solve a critical problem like malaria diagnosis, we needed to design a human-powered centrifuge that costs less than a cup of coffee,” says Prakash, who was senior author on the study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Prakash’s centrifuge, which he calls the ‘paperfuge’, almost looks like a joke, a children’s toy. In many ways, you wouldn’t be wrong calling it a toy. After all, its design is based on the whirligig — a toy made out of a punctured disc with string threaded through the hole. As you pull the string, the disc will frenetically start spinning in one direction, and then in the opposite direction as the string unwinds. Versions of this toy have been found almost everywhere in the world, the oldest one dating from 3,300BC.

Prakash and colleagues explored various designs that can be operated manually and cost little money. They eventually settled on the whirligig, impressed by its ability to spin at 10,000 r.pm, which is comparable to commercial-grade centrifuges.

Being scientists, though, the team sought ways to improve its performance. First, a mathematical analysis of the whirligig’s physics was performed. Countless hours of spinning cardboard disks were recorded but the effort eventually paid off. The video footage revealed that not only do the strings twist around each other as they wind and unwind, but also form coils which surprisingly look similar to DNA helix structure.

After solving the equations that describe the coiling motion, the scientists came up with the dimensions an ideal whirligig needs to have. Apparently, if you tweak things like the disc’s size or the string’s thickness, the resulting whirligig could theoretically spin a million times per minute or 100 times more efficiently than the initial versions Prakash tried out. Thing is, no human can spin a disk that fast — you’d need a machine to come close to this theoretical limit. Even so, the new design could spin at 125,000 r.p.m, according to live experiments made in the lab. This makes the paperfuge the fastest rotating device powered by human motion, and Prakash has the Guiness World Records certificate to prove it.

The final paperfuge prototype consists of two cardboard discs, each 10cm across. On one of the disks, two 4cm-long drinking straws were glued to it with the outer ends sealed with glue. It’s inside the straw tubes that blood is centrifuged.  These add-ons reduced the spinning speed, though, now only 20,000 r.p.m but fast enough to separate plasma from blood in 1.5 minutes, and malaria parasites in 15 minutes.

Soon, the Prakash lab in partnership PIVOT, a nonprofit from Boston, Massachusetts, will begin field trials in Madagascar where they will assess both the efficacy of the blood separation and the willingness of health workers to spin the paperfuges like crazy. Common sense says they have to do it. Separating blood samples is essential to diagnosing HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, among other things.

“We don’t know yet if the paperfuge will work,” says Matt Bonds, PIVOT cofounder and an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It would take a lot of evidence to convince people to abandon modern centrifuges, but having paperfuges available as an alternative could open up a world of new possibilities.”

Of course, once you have the blood separated you also need to have it analyzed. Luckily, the researchers already have us covered. We reported way back in 2014 how the PrakashLab at Stanford University essentially made functioning microscope out of a lens, battery and LED, which can be folded akin to an origami for under 1$ and in 10 minutes time.


Vampires might be on to something: blood from young humans rejuvenates old mice


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Plasma, the liquid part of blood, has been time and time again shown to have rejuvenating properties when transferred from young to old mice. A group of researchers from a company called Alkahest wanted to investigate whether the same effect held true if human blood was injected into the old mice. Indeed, the effects were much of the same as the young human blood led to improved memory, cognition, and stamina.

True blood

Previously, studies showed that plasma can rejuvenate the brain and other organs like the liver, heart, or muscle tissue. This seems to work only when the blood is transferred from the young to the old. If done in reverse, young mice begin to show signs of brain aging.

By now, the dark plot of some vampire movie might come to mind. But the implications of such research go far beyond myth and legend — we could be coming across a holy grail with great impact for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Our lifespans could be significantly augmented, some researchers believe. But the most meaningful benefits of vampire-like transfusions might be reaped by the chronically ill. People with cancer who resist muscle loss have better chances of survival, for instance.

Since the early 2000s, researchers have been making blood transfusions to study these effects. It seems like a protein called GDF11 found in blood plasma is responsible for the rejuvenating effects, as identified by Harvard researchers in 2012. In both mice and humans, GDF11 falls with age. We don’t know why this happens yet but there are hints that the decline occurs due to growth control mechanisms. We can only hope to learn more once the first human trials involving young-to-old blood transfusions begin.

Sakura Minami and colleagues at Alkahest made a first step in this direction by transfusing the blood taken from 18-year-old humans and injecting them into 12-month-old mice (equivalent to 50 years of age in human years). Prior to the experiment, these elderly mice showed clear signs of aging like poor memory and decreased physical activity.

For three weeks, the mice were injected with human plasma twice a week. At the end of the human plasma treatment, the mice were evaluated by a range of tests. Young, 3-month-old-mice, as well as a elderly mice who did not receive the plasma injection served as the controls and yardstick.

The team found human plasma, though injected in a foreign organism, does have the power to rejuvenate. The plasma-treated mice were far more physically active, running around an open space almost indistinguishably from young mice. Regarding cognition, the treated mice remembered their way around a maze much easier and better than untreated mice. When the brains of these mice were examined, Minami and colleagues found new neurons developed in the hippocampus, a growth process scientists call neurogenesis.

“Young human plasma improves cognition,” says Minami, who presented her findings at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, on Monday. “Their memory was preserved.”

“It’s more or less what we would expect,” says Victoria Bolotina, at Boston University in Massachusetts. “The blood of young people must have something in it that’s important for keeping them young,” she told New Scientist.

At the meeting, Minami said her team had identified several factors from young blood that might be responsible for these effects. Some might cross into the brain while others might act remotely, but she did not share the exact mechanisms. The findings appeared in the journal Nature.

“There’s anecdotal evidence that people experience benefits after blood transfusions,” she says — evidence that might one day translate into anti-aging treatments but also urgent rejuvenation for the most vulnerably ill.

The U.S. plans to build the most advanced fusion reactor ever

The US government has put its weight behind efforts to create an economically viable fusion reactor, endorsing a new category of designs that could become the most efficient and viable yet.

Test cell of the NSTX-U.
Image credits Elle Starkman / PPPL Office of Communications.

Re-creating the atom fusing processes that sustain the sun on Earth has long been one of the holy grails of modern physics. Hydrogen fusion has been powering out Sun for the past 4.5 billion years now, and it’s still going strong — a machine that could safely and stably harvest these processes would offer humanity safe, clean, and virtually endless energy.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, making a star isn’t easy. Physicists have seen some progress in this field, but a viable fusion reactor still remains out of their grasp. We’re inching forward, however, and in an effort to promote progress the US government has just backed plans for physicists to build a new kind of nuclear fusion device that could be the most efficient design yet.

Harnessing the atom…again

Our nuclear plants today rely on nuclear fission — the splitting of an atom into tinier atoms and neutrons — to produce energy, and they’re really good at it. Per unit of mass, nuclear fission releases millions of times more energy than coal-burning. The downside is that you have to deal with the resulting radioactive waste, which is really costly and really hard to get right.

But merging atoms, in nuclear fusion, produces no radioactive waste. If you heat up the nuclei of two lighter atoms to a high enough temperature, they merge into a heavier one releasing massive amounts of energy, with the only reaction product being the fused atom. It’s an incredibly efficient process, one that sustains all the stars in the Universe, our sun included.

So there’s understandably a lot of interest into taking that process, scaling it down, and harvesting it to power our lives. Physicists have been trying to do just that for the past 60 years and still haven’t succeeded, a testament to how hard it can be to put “a star in a jar.” The biggest issue, as you might have guessed, is that stars are incredibly hot.

While fission can be performed at temperatures just a few hundred degrees Celsius, fusion takes place at star-core temperatures of several millions of degrees. And because our would-be reactors have to jump-start the reaction from scratch, they need to generate temperatures in excess of that. A successful reactor should be able to resist at least 100 million degrees Celsius. Which is a lot.

“During the process of nuclear fusion, atoms’ electrons are separated from their nuclei, thereby creating a super-hot cloud of electrons and ions (the nuclei minus their electrons) known as plasma,” Daniel Oberhaus said for the Motherboard.

“The problem with this energy-rich plasma is figuring out how to contain it, since it exists at extremely high temperatures (up to 150 million degrees Celsius, or 10 times the temperature at the Sun’s core). Any material you can find on Earth isn’t going to make a very good jar.”

So what scientists usually do to keep the plasma from vaporizing the device is to contain it through the use of magnetic fields. So far, the closest anyone’s gotten to sustainable fusion is a team of physicists at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald, Germany, and researchers at China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) – both of which have been trying to hold onto the super-heated plasma that results from the fusion reaction.

The German device managed to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second last year. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it was a huge milestone in the world of physics. Back in February, the Chinese team reported that it successfully generated hydrogen plasma at 49.999 million degrees Celsius, and held onto it for 102 seconds. Neither of these devices has proved that fusion can produce energy — just that it is possible in a controlled environment.

Physicists at the US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) think that progress has been so slow because we’ve been working with the wrong jar. They plan to redesign the fusion reactor to incorporate better materials and a more efficient shape — instead of using the traditional tokamak to contain the plasma in a doughnut-like shape, they suggest employing spherical tokamaks, more akin to a cored apple. The team writes that this spherical design halves the size of the hole in the doughnut, meaning we can use much lower energy magnetic fields to keep the plasma in place.

Traditional tokamak.
Image credits Matthias W. Hirsch / Wikimedia.

The smaller hole could also allow for the production of tritium – a rare isotope of hydrogen – which can fuse with another isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, to produce fusion reactions.

They’ve also set their sights on replacing the huge copper magnets employed in today tokamak designs with high-temperature superconducting magnets that are far more efficient because electricity can flow through them with zero resistance.

To save development time, the team will be applying these improvements to two existing spherical tokamaks – UK’s Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak (MAST), which is in the final stages of construction, and the PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U), which came online last year.

“We are opening up new options for future plants,” one of the researchers behind the study, NSTX-U program director Jonathan Menard, said in a statement.

“[These facilities] will push the physics frontier, expand our knowledge of high temperature plasmas, and, if successful, lay the scientific foundation for fusion development paths based on more compact designs,” added PPPL director Stewart Prager.

Right now, all we can do is wait and see the results. But if this works, we’ll be one step closer to creating stars right here on Earth — then plugging them right into the grid to power our smartphones.

The full paper titled “Fusion nuclear science facilities and pilot plants based on the spherical tokamak” has been published in Nuclear Fusion.

New plasma printing technique can deposit nanomaterials on flexible, 3D substrates

A new nanomaterial printing method could make it both easier and cheaper to create devices such as wearable chemical and biological sensors, data storage and integrated circuits — even on flexible surfaces such as paper or cloth. The secret? Plasma.

The nozzle firing a jet of carbon nanotubes with helium plasma off and on. When the plasma is off, the density of carbon nanotubes is small. The plasma focuses the nanotubes onto the substrate with high density and good adhesion.
Image credits NASA Ames Research Center.

Printing layers of nanoparticles of nanotubes onto a substrate doesn’t necessarily require any fancy hardware — in fact, the most common method today is to use an inkjet printer very similar to the one you might have in your home or office. Although these printers are cost efficient and have stood the test of time, they’re not without limitations. They can only print on rigid materials with liquid ink — and not all materials can be easily made into a liquid. But probably the most serious limitation is that they can only print on 2D objects.

Aerosol printing techniques solve some of these problems. They can be employed to deposit smooth, thin films of nanomaterials on flexible substrates. But because the “ink” has to be heated to several hundreds of degrees to dry, using flammable materials such as paper or cloth remains a big no-no.

A new printing method developed by researchers from NASA Ames and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory works around this issue. The plasma-based printing system doesn’t a heat-treating phase — in fact, the whole takes place at temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius. It also doesn’t require the printing material to be liquid.

“You can use it to deposit things on paper, plastic, cotton, or any kind of textile,” said Mayya Meyyappan of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“It’s ideal for soft substrates.”

The team demonstrated their technique by covering a sheet of paper in a layer of carbon nanotubes. To do this, they blasted a mixture of carbon nanotubes and helium-ion plasma through a nozzle directly onto the paper. Because the plasma focuses the particles onto the paper’s surface, they form a well consolidated layer without requiring further heat-treatment.

They then printed two simple chemical and biological sensors. By adding certain molecules to the nanotube-plasma cocktail, they can change the tubes’ electrical resistance and response to certain compounds. The chemical sensor was designed to detect ammonia gas and the biological one was tailored to respond to dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to disorders like Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

But these are just simple proof-of-concept constructs, Meyyappan said.

“There’s a wide range of biosensing applications,” she added.

Applications like monitoring cholesterol levels, checking for pathogens or hormonal imbalances, to name a few.

This method is very versatile and can easily be scaled up — just add more nozzles. For example, a shower-head type system could print large surfaces at once. Alternatively, it could be designed to act like a hose, spraying nanomaterials on 3D surfaces.

“It can do things inkjet printing cannot do,” Meyyappan said. “But [it can do] anything inkjet printing can do, it can be pretty competitive.”

Meyyappan said that the method is ready for commercial applications, and should be relatively simple and inexpensive to develop. The team is now tweaking their technique to allow for other printing materials, such as copper. This would allow them to print materials used for batteries onto thin sheets of metal such as aluminum. The sheet can then be rolled up to make very tiny, very powerful batteries for cellphones or other devices.

The full paper, titled “Plasma jet printing for flexible substrate” has been published online in the journal Applied Physics Letters and can be read here.

“Fingers” of Plasma Invade Saturn’s Magnetic Field

NASA’s Cassini probe recently observed mysterious, huge amounts of plasma on the fringes of Saturn’s magnetic field; surprisingly, they were shooting hundreds of thousands of kilometers inward.

Saturn’s ring current of energetic ions trapped in its magnetic field is shown in this false-color map from the Cassini spacecraft. The colors correspond to the intensities of the energetic neutral atoms emitted from the ring current. These neutral atoms are formed when trapped energetic positive ions take electrons from cold gas atoms, and are then able to escape Saturn’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

Saturn may be a very cold gas giant, but its magnetosphere is filled with plasmas originating from both the planet and its moons. Many of them originate from Enceladus which ejects as much as 1,000 kg/s of water vapor from the geysers on its south pole, a portion of which is ionized and forced to co-rotate with the Saturn’s magnetic field. This so-called plasmasphere is held rigidly in place by the planet’s magnetosphere, and as a result, centrifugal forces tend to fling dense, heavy plasma parcels into deep space.

But not all plasma is sent outwards. As some of the plasma is ejected outwards, less dense plasma rushes to take its place, forming fingers of hot plasma that penetrate deep inside Saturn’s magnetic field. This particular interaction is called an interchange injection, and we still don’t know exactly how it happens.

Now, NASA’s Cassini probe spent a lot of time orbiting Saturn, allowing Thomsen et al. to take a peek and measure several parameters of these injections. Specifically, they were interested in how far these things actually go. They found that most of the water molecules do indeed originate from Enceladus, which has an ocean of liquid water under its frozen surface. This means that water concentrations are highest near Enceladus’s orbit, and decrease farther away from Saturn. The team found that some of these fingers come from regions as distant as 14 times the radius of Saturn, bringing them inward by over six Saturn radii and invading the planet’s magnetic field – that’s 360,000 kilometers!

There are two main theories about how this happens – one considers an already documented phenomenon: pulses of energy that rip themselves from the outskirts of the magnetic field where the solar wind blows them into a converging tail, while the other suggests that they arise pontaneously from turbulence in the magnetosphere.

Journal Reference: Zastrow, M. (2015), “Fingers” of plasma invade Saturn’s magnetic field, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO037417. Published on 15 October 2015.

Become a fire-bender – all you need is some electricity

Take a candle, light it, turn it on its side — we all know what will happen. The convection cell that forms around the flame keeps licking up towards the sky (or ceiling) regardless of the orientation of the fuel.

But can the movement of air be overcome, can we make a fire burn horizontally? Well, the short answer is yes, yes we can — we just have to use science.

The long answer

The chemical reaction that fire relies on is oxidation. While burning, part of the chemical building blocks of the piece of fuel are tied to atoms of O, releasing the energy they store in the initial chemical bonds as heat and light. The main by-products are carbon dioxide and water, most often in a gaseous form, mixed with other elements depending on the fuel used — this is what creates smoke.

Now, the more physics-savvy of you already spotted two words in that previous paragraph, “gas” and “heat.” When you heat a gas, or subject it to a strong enough electromagnetic field, you get plasma, one of the four fundamental states of matter we know of today.

The main difference between plasma and a gas is that in the former, a large fraction of the atoms are ionized — because they environment is so hot, they slam into each other hard enough to allow some electrons to temporarily escape their host atom. Plasma is loosely described as an electrically neutral medium of unbound positive and negative particles (meaning that overall, it has zero electrical charge, but zoom in and it’s more of a soup of +’s and -‘s.)

Plasma thus gains some electrical properties that a non-ionized gas doesn’t have; it becomes conductive and it responds to electrical and magnetic fields. And that property is exactly what they guys from the Rino Foundation used to make their flame bend as it does in this video:


Fire is a genuine plasma, not the most ionized or homogeneous, but it is the kind we’re most used to. Even small and relatively cool fires, like candle flames, respond to electric fields and are pretty conductive.

So, the next time you go to a party and really need to impress your crush with awesome fire-bending skills (and for some reason happen to carry a few sheets of copper and electrical wiring around, we don’t judge), you’ll know exactly how to go about doing that. You’re welcome.

Rosetta mission discovers the comet that “sings”

The Rosetta probe found a comet which “sings”. Image via ABC.

As I am writing this, the Rosetta mission’s lander, Philae, is mid way through its landing on a comet. If everything works out, this will be the first time humans have landed anything on a comet and will provide valuable information about not only the comet in particular, but also our solar system in general.

*UPDATE* Rosetta’s final ‘go’ has been given, the landing attempt will start today in just a few minutes!

But as Rosetta was zooming in on its destination, machines picked up a very strange signal coming from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Through some kind of interaction in the comet’s environment, 67P’s weak magnetic field seems to be oscillating at low frequencies. Scientists amplified the frequencies 10,000 times to make them audible for the human ear.

It’s still not clear exactly why this “singing” is happening, but researchers believe the oscillations may be driven by the ionisation of neutral particles from the comet’s jets. Basically, the comet’s nucleus and coma are surrounded by jets of vapor and dust which interact with the solar wind – a stream of plasma released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, consisting mostly of electrons and protons.

As they are released into space, these particles become ionized, and because they are ionized, they interact with the comet’s magnetic field, causing the oscillations we have now picked up. But before a definitive answer is given, more research is needed.

“This is exciting because it is completely new to us,” says Karl-Heinz Glaßmeier, head of Space Physics and Space Sensorics at the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany. “We did not expect this and we are still working to understand the physics of what is happening.”

Hopefully, the mission will work out as planned and the lander will be successful in making its way on the surface of the comet. We’ll keep you posted!

Image: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Particle accelerator only 30cm in size is hundred times faster than LHC

Researchers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have devised a particle accelerator that can increase the kinetic energy of particles passing through it hundreds of times faster than the LHC. While the latter is comprised of a 27km ring, the device made by the US scientists is only 30cm in size. This massive leap in miniaturization could drastically reduce the cost of bulky and expensive medical devices like X-rays, lasers or radiotherapy. Some of these sell for more than a million dollars, and a big chunk of the cost and storage size is reserved to the particle accelerators.

Cheaper, faster particle accelerators

Image: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Image: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Particle accelerators transfer energy so that protons, electrons or positrons (anti-electron) can reach ever higher energies. When these particles are collided at these tremendous speeds, funny things start to happen. If billions of collisions are made, chances have it that all sorts of elementary particles, some lasting only a fraction of a second, can be seen. This is how the famed Higgs boson was confirmed at CERN only a few years ago. In a way, a high-energy particle accelerator like the LHC at CERN is a time machine, because it replicates conditions similar to those in place mere moments following the Big Bang.

[RELATED] Large Hadron Collider creates mini big bangs and incredible heat

Now, the LHC is a lot different than smaller particle accelerators like those used in medicine. For one, the LHC accelerates hadrons (protons, neutrons and subatomic particles) in a huge energy flux (luminosity) by “rf cavities” – a sort of black box that  transfers electromagnetic energy into the kinetic energy of particles, accelerating them. Multiple such cavities are used, but they have to be carefully placed to avoid lightning-like discharges of energy.This is mainly why the LHC needs such a large accelerating ring.

Other applications, however, don’t require a high luminosity. In medicine, particle accelerators use electrons (instead of hadrons) and don’t require high luminosity, which is helpful to generate multiple collisions. Instead of rf cavities, the accelerator made SLAC uses  a short column of lithium vapour “plasma” in rapid succession, whose electric field is able to transport energy to electrons hundreds of times faster than the LHC – all with a device 30cm in size.

[INTERESTING] Particle accelerator on a chip

Plasma is considered the fourth state of matter.  Plasma is a cloud of protons, neutrons and electrons where all the electrons have come loose from their respective molecules and atoms, giving the plasma the ability to act as a whole rather than as a bunch of atoms. A plasma is more like a gas than any of the other states of matter because the atoms are not in constant contact with each other, but it behaves differently from a gas. Between particles in plasma, the electric field can be very high and as electrons pass through the plasma in the SLAC experiment, they acquire energy.

So, how could this translate into practical applications? Well, the prime candidate, as already mentioned, is the field of medicine. Handheld particle weapons might also be possible. Whatever we’ll see happening, the LHC won’t become obsolete any time soon. On the contrary, ever bigger hadron accelerators are being considered, like the 100 TeV machine in China.

Findings appeared in the journal Nature. The paper’s abstract:

“High-efficiency acceleration of charged particle beams at high gradients of energy gain per unit length is necessary to achieve an affordable and compact high-energy collider. The plasma wakefield accelerator is one concept1, 2, 3 being developed for this purpose. In plasma wakefield acceleration, a charge-density wake with high accelerating fields is driven by the passage of an ultra-relativistic bunch of charged particles (the drive bunch) through a plasma4, 5, 6. If a second bunch of relativistic electrons (the trailing bunch) with sufficient charge follows in the wake of the drive bunch at an appropriate distance, it can be efficiently accelerated to high energy. Previous experiments using just a single 42-gigaelectronvolt drive bunch have accelerated electrons with a continuous energy spectrum and a maximum energy of up to 85 gigaelectronvolts from the tail of the same bunch in less than a metre of plasma7. However, the total charge of these accelerated electrons was insufficient to extract a substantial amount of energy from the wake. Here we report high-efficiency acceleration of a discrete trailing bunch of electrons that contains sufficient charge to extract a substantial amount of energy from the high-gradient, nonlinear plasma wakefield accelerator. Specifically, we show the acceleration of about 74 picocoulombs of charge contained in the core of the trailing bunch in an accelerating gradient of about 4.4 gigavolts per metre. These core particles gain about 1.6 gigaelectronvolts of energy per particle, with a final energy spread as low as 0.7 per cent (2.0 per cent on average), and an energy-transfer efficiency from the wake to the bunch that can exceed 30 per cent (17.7 per cent on average). This acceleration of a distinct bunch of electrons containing a substantial charge and having a small energy spread with both a high accelerating gradient and a high energy-transfer efficiency represents a milestone in the development of plasma wakefield acceleration into a compact and affordable accelerator technology.”

A three-dimensional view of a p-Pb collision that produced collective flow behavior. The green lines are the trajectories of the sub-atomic particles produced by the collision reconstructed by the CMS tracking system. The red and blue bars represent the energy measured by the instrument's two sets of calorimeters. (CMS Collaboration)

Smallest liquid droplets created at LHC are 100,000th the size of a hydrogen atom

Scientists closely working with the  Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world, have identified evidence of the minuscule droplets produced in the aftermath of high energy proton and lead ions collisions. If their calculations are right, then these are the smallest droplets of liquid ever encountered thus far, just three to five protons in size. That’s about one-100,000th the size of a hydrogen atom or one-100,000,000th the size of a virus. WOW!

“With this discovery, we seem to be seeing the very origin of collective behavior,” said  Julia Velkovska, professor of physics at Vanderbilt who serves as a co-convener of the heavy ion program of the CMS detector, the LHC instrument that made the unexpected discovery. “Regardless of the material that we are using, collisions have to be violent enough to produce about 50 sub-atomic particles before we begin to see collective, flow-like behavior.”

A three-dimensional view of a p-Pb collision that produced collective flow behavior. The green lines are the trajectories of the sub-atomic particles produced by the collision reconstructed by the CMS tracking system. The red and blue bars represent the energy measured by the instrument's two sets of calorimeters. (CMS Collaboration)

A three-dimensional view of a p-Pb collision that produced collective flow behavior. The green lines are the trajectories of the sub-atomic particles produced by the collision reconstructed by the CMS tracking system. The red and blue bars represent the energy measured by the instrument’s two sets of calorimeters. (CMS Collaboration)

These tiny droplets “flow” in a manner similar to the behavior of the quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter that is a mixture of the sub-atomic particles that makes up protons and neutrons and only exists at extreme temperatures and densities. Some scientists claim that at the very dawn of the Universe’s existence shortly after the big bang, this primordial cosmic goo was everywhere, because of much higher temperature and density conditions.

These interactions weren’t actually targeted for observation by the LHC researchers, though. Scientists were looking to check the validity of their lead-lead results, and scheduled a proton-lead ion collision for as a simply control run – they ended up with quark-gluon plasma in the process.

“The proton-lead collisions are something like shooting a bullet through an apple while lead-lead collisions are more like smashing two apples together: A lot more energy is released in the latter,” said Velkovska.

Indeed, last September LHC researchers found that in five percent of the  protons and lead nuclei collisions —those that were the most violent – evidence of collective behavior was encountered. In turn, this allowed for the formation of   liquid droplets about one tenth the size of those produced by the lead-lead or gold-gold collisions.  The data gathered then, however, wasn’t enough to discount the influence of particle jets. New experiments in January and February of this year resulted in hundreds of cases where the collisions produced more than 300 particles flowing together.

According to doctoral student Shengquan Tuo, who recently presented the new results at a workshop held in the European Centre for Theoretical Studies in Nuclear Physics and Related Areas in Trento, Italy, only two models were advanced to explain their observations at the workshop. Of the two, the plasma droplet model seems to fit the observations best.

The new observations are contained in a paper submitted by the CMS collaboration to the journal Physics Letters B and posted on the arXiv preprint server.


Scientists inspecting the compressor of the Vulcan Petawatt laser.

High power laser hallows atom from the inside out

An international team of physicists have used one of the world’s most powerful lasers to create an unusual kind of plasma made out of hollow atoms, by using a breakthrough technique which involved emptying atoms of electrons from the inside out, instead of working from the outer shells inwards.  This bizarre physics experiment shows once again just how important X-rays are in physics interaction and deepens our understanding of fusion.

Scientists inspecting the compressor of the Vulcan Petawatt laser.

Scientists inspecting the compressor of the Vulcan Petawatt laser.

A hallow atom is created when electrons nested deep inside the atom are removed, typically by colliding the said electrons with other electrons, creating a “hole” inside the atom, while leaving the other electrons in place. Through this process, a distinct form of plasma is formed, and if the hole is filled X-rays are released. Plasma is a form of ionized gas, which mainly differentiates itself through its highly conductive electrical properties. In nature, a great example of plasma at work is lightning. Neon lights also make for a familiar display of plasma since its the latter which produces the light.

For their experiment, the researchers used the petawatt laser at the Central Laser Facility at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to zap individual atoms. For context, the  petawatt laser delivers approximately 10,000 times the entire UK national grid, all in one zap lasting a thousand-billionth of a second, onto an area smaller than the end of a human hair. Impressed yet?

“At such extraordinary intensities electrons move at close to the speed of light and as they move they create perhaps the most intense X-rays ever observed on Earth. These X-rays empty the atoms from the inside out; a most extraordinary observation and one that suggests the physics of these interactions is likely to change, as lasers become more powerful,” said Dr Nigel Woolsey, from the York Plasma Institute, Department of Physics, at the University of York was the Principal Investigator for the experimental work.

A hallow atom from the inside out

So, unlike previous attempts to create hallow atoms, the current work doesn’t rely on electron or photon collision to create atom holes, instead it uses the resulting radiation field from the interaction to achieve the same effect; only from the inside out.

“This experiment has demonstrated a situation where X-ray radiation dominates the atomic physics in a laser-plasma interaction; this indicates the importance of X-ray radiation generation in our physics description. Future experiments are likely to show yet more dramatic effects which will have substantial implications for diverse fields such as laboratory-based astrophysics,” said Co-author Dr Alexei Zhidkov, from Osaka University.

The experiments provides further insight into fusion research, which offers the potential for  for an effectively limitless supply of safe, environmentally friendly energy.

Co-author Dr Sergey Pikuz, from the Joint Institute for High Temperatures RAS, said: “The measurements, simulations, and developing physics picture are consistent with a scenario in which high-intensity laser technology can be used to generate extremely intense X-ray fields. This demonstrates the potential to study properties of matter under the impact of intense X-ray radiation.”

Co-author Rachel Dance, a University of York PhD physics student, said: “This was a very dynamic experiment which led to an unexpected outcome and new physics.  The hollow atom diagnostic was set to measure the hot electron beam current generated by the laser, and the results that came out of this in the end, showed us that the mechanism for hollow atom generation, was not collisional or driven by the laser photons, but by the resulting radiation field from the interaction.”

Findings were reported in the journal Physical Review Letters.