Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, November 16, 2009

New $10M Department of Energy center to focus on plasma research

A new center at the College of Engineering will enable fundamental research on low-temperature plasmas — ionized gases with vast potential for practical technological advancements in fields such as energy, lighting, microelectronics and medicine.

The Center for Predictive Control of Plasma Kinetics: Multi-phase and Bounded Systems is funded by a $10 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The research that will be conducted at the center could lead to more efficient solar cells, finer-featured microchips and new medical tools that cut and heal tissues with plasma- activated chemistry, rather than heat as lasers do. Plasma surgical tools could allow wounds to heal faster, says Mark Kushner, the George I. Haddad Collegiate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Kushner is the new center’s director.

Plasmas, which are a distinct state of matter, are found throughout the universe. They permeate interplanetary space. The sun is a high-temperature plasma. On Earth, low-temperature plasmas enable crisp, lightweight television displays as well as solar cells. They carve out the intricate features of silicon microchips, among many other applications.

Using experiments and computational models, researchers at the new center will investigate the science behind methods to best control the velocities of the charged particles in low-temperature plasmas. Controlling the velocities of the particles will allow them to direct the plasma’s energy — a vital step toward achieving these technological advancements, Kushner says.

“The flow of energy in a plasma is very complex and difficult to control,” Kushner says. “In a plasma, you put energy in one place and it comes out somewhere else. The question is: How can you focus the energy you put in to excite atoms, molecules and surfaces in ways that can eventually be used in technological devices? How can you configure it to prevent the energy from oozing out where you don’t want it to?”

Researchers can achieve this control by carefully crafting electric and magnetic fields and applying them to the plasma. The center will develop open source computer models that will allow researchers to enter a particular plasma configuration they want to create and receive information about what electric and magnetic fields they must apply to achieve those attributes.

“Low-temperature plasmas create great societal benefits through the technologies they enable,” Kushner says. “This center will advance the fundamental science that will enable plasmas used in technical applications to provide even greater advancements in areas such as energy, materials and health care.”

The center consists of researchers from nine other institutions: The Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, West Virginia University, the University of Houston, the University of California, Berkeley, Sandia National Laboratory, the University of Wisconsin, Princeton Plasma Physical Laboratory and the University of Maryland.

Other U-M researchers involved are Iain Boyd, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering; Alec Gallimore, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering; and Valery Godyak and Vladimir Kolobov, consultants and adjunct professors in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Kushner also is director of the Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering, which has close to 30 faculty members in units across the university, including physics, engineering, space science and mathematics.