FAMU Scientists come one step closer toward harnessing the power of stars
From Pamela Tolson and Deidre P. Williams
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The term “Reach for the stars” has new meaning for scientists at Florida A&M University (FAMU) who are attempting to harness the power of stars like the sun in the form of fusion energy. A recent experiment at the FAMU Center of Plasma Science and Technology (CePaST) has moved the university one step closer toward producing a sustainable clean energy source of electrical power. The experiment has conducted inside the largest fusion energy reactor of its kind in the world—the Spheromak—and the only one constructed and located at a historically Black university.
“This is a non-trivial event,” said Charles Weatherford, CePaST director and principal investigator of the FAMU Fusion Energy Spheromak Turbulent Plasma Experiment (STPX). “By achieving ‘first plasma,’ we are certain that the chamber vacuum is holding, electrodes are working and the capacitor banks are firing correctly.”
Not to be mistaken for blood plasma, the FAMU Spheromak uses internally generated magnetic fields to contain highly ionized gas. In the science world, this type of gas or plasma is called the fourth state of matter and comprises 99 percent of the visible universe. Liquids, solids, and neutral gases—like water, ice and steam—are three other naturally occurring matter found on Earth that are too cool and too dense to occur in a plasma state.
According to FAMU alumnus and STPX lead technician Alonzo Alexander, the plasma produced by the device must reach a temperature of more than 100 million degrees Celsius before achieving the ultimate goal of producing more energy than is consumed.
“The STPX will teach us many things about astrophysics and plasma physics,” said Alexander. “Fusion energy is the gateway to a future without fossil fuels and the drawbacks they present in the form of environmental impact and national security concerns.”
“Fusion research is key to the nation’s long-term energy supply strategy,” said Maurice Edington, interim dean, FAMU College of Science and Technology. “In addition to its scientific workforce contributions to the State of Florida, the STPX project gives our students hands-on experience in applying advanced physics principles taught in the classroom.”
Most universities do not engage undergraduate students in the development of hardware like the Spheromak during large-scale physics research. They typically reach first plasma with the involvement of several lead scientists, a team of engineers and multiple computational physicists. FAMU achieved the same goal with a team consisting of only one scientist, one technician, and a handful of students. FAMU students enrolled in physics, engineering, computer science and architecture programs helped develop the concept and complete construction of the Spheromak primarily engineered by Woodruff Scientific, Inc. and Atlas Welding Technologies in Seattle.
“This project has definitely given me insight into what it takes to be an experimental physicist,” said Baysha Bernales, a junior physics student from Hawthorne, Fla. “I’m applying a lot of my physical electronics knowledge, since I tend to do a lot of work on circuitry.”
“The FAMU Spheromak Turbulent Physics Experiment (STPX) should enable the study of turbulent phenomena in plasmas. Achieving first plasma is a necessary first step to make this research possible,” said Samuel Barish, the HBCU program manager of the Department of Energy Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.
The journey is not over. The next major milestone will occur once the plasma inside of the Spheromak has been stabilized for a time period of 100 micro-seconds. Until then, FAMU continues to conduct various experiments to understand how the plasma is behaving and to understand how it can be manipulated and controlled. Once this happens, star power will be in the grasp of FAMU-trained scientists and students who are leading the way toward commercial fusion energy.
About the FAMU Spheromak Turbulent Plasma Experiment
FAMU is a world leader in turbulence research. The FAMU STPX project began in 1999 and is funded through a four-year, $924,000 congressional grant. University and external collaborators include Earl Scime of West Virginia University, Ed Thomas of Auburn University, and Simon Woodruff of Woodruff Scientific, Inc.
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