Auburn physics professors receive nearly $900k in federal funding to develop fusion as energy source

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Photo courtesy of Auburn University. Auburn Professor Stuart Loch, left, and Curtis Johnson stand in front of a full-scale model cross-section of the DIII-D plasma experiment.

By Maria Gebhardt
Special to the
Opelika Observer

A worldwide effort to make fusion a reliable energy source could move closer to reality with the help of two Auburn University physics professors who were recently awarded nearly $900,000 in research grant funds from the U.S. Department of Energy.

David Ennis and Stuart Loch from Auburn’s Department of Physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, have been selected as recipients of a competitive $879,826 grant from the Department of Energy that will run through June 30, 2022. The project is a collaboration between Auburn plasma physicists and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, located in San Diego, California, designed to develop fusion energy by utilizing ultraviolet spectroscopy to accurately measure the amount of tungsten in the plasma edge.

Fusion is the mechanism that powers the sun, and the DIII-D experiment is part of an increasing effort across the globe to harness that power as a sustainable source of energy. One key requirement for future fusion reactors is to ensure that material from the walls of the vessel does not erode into the plasma volume where fusion is occurring.

“The element tungsten is a leading candidate for a first-wall material in future fusion reactors because it has the highest melting point of all metals, but it can still be eroded and decrease the overall performance of a plasma,” Ennis said.

The research combines multiple areas of expertise existing within the Auburn physics department, including experimental plasma physics, atomic physics predictions and spectroscopic interpretation, to inform experiments being conducted at a large-scale national facility.

The project originally began with support from the Auburn University Intramural Grants Program, which led to the work becoming federally funded by the Department of Energy.

“The Auburn internal grant supplied funds to purchase an ultraviolet survey spectrometer that yielded pilot data for a full grant proposal,” Loch said. “Thus, Auburn funding was key in launching this project to obtain DOE funding.”

The new federal funding will allow Auburn researchers to permanently install a new ultraviolet spectrometer with much higher precision on the DIII-D tokamak experiment.

Plasma physics is the study of the fourth state of matter, composed of highly energetic charged particles. Auburn is known internationally for faculty, postdocs and students conducting research in the field of plasma physics, both on the Auburn campus and at facilities around the world.

According to the Department of Energy, the DIII-D tokamak is the largest magnetically confined plasma facility in the United States, providing physicists with the opportunity to investigate plasmas heated to extreme temperatures.

“The acquisition of a high-resolution spectrometer, along with the addition of a new Auburn postdoctoral researcher to be stationed full time at the experiment, will immediately strengthen the collaboration between Auburn University and the DIII-D plasma experiment,” Ennis said.

In addition to experimental work, large-scale calculations were completed on Auburn University’s ‘Hopper’ supercomputer. These computations helped the project secure the first round of federal funding, and now the collaboration is receiving a second round of almost $900,000.

“While the initial spectroscopic measurements better informed the supercomputer calculations, the predictions from those computations in turn informed the design of the new high-resolution spectrometer,” Loch said. “Therefore, the project represents a very productive synergy between experimental and theoretical efforts.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.

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