World-Class Plasma Research Lab Celebrates 10th Anniversary Studying 4th State of Matter

A group of people standing on a platform

Clockwise, from center: Dr. Edward E. Thomas Jr. (COSAM dean and MPRL principal investigator), Cameron Royer, Jordan Nash, Bhavesh Ramkorun, Matthew Shepherd, Samuel Thacker, Edward Cowles, Blake Koford, Siddharth Bachoti, Jared Powell, Dr. Mustafizur Rahman, Dr. Saikat Chakraborty Thakur

Most people are aware of three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas.

However, there is a fourth state of matter that makes up almost the entire visible universe. It is an exciting and relatively new field of science that holds unlimited potential in many real-life applications.

Plasma is a superheated ionized gas. It is so hot that electrons are removed from the substance, ending up with a soup of flowing electrons, ions and neutral atoms (for partially ionized plasmas). The sun, for example, is a big ball of plasma!

Three researchers talking

From the left: Dr. Steve Williams, visiting graduate student Pubuduni Ekanayaka and Dr. Saikat Chakraborty Thakur assemble a vacuumcompatible viewport to be attached to the Magnetized Dusty Plasma eXperiment (MDPX).

Since matter is heated to such an extreme temperature, in the lab it must be safely maintained with a specially designed and configured device.

Auburn University’s Department of Physics is one of the foremost leading research centers in the world for plasma, thanks to its Magnetized Plasma Research Lab (MPRL).

Conducting research in plasma physics has created collaborations with faculty from the University of Iowa and the University of California – San Diego as well as brought researchers around the world to conduct experiments on the unique Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment (MDPX).

The MDPX is a giant superconducting magnet with a chamber for the plasma that controls this incredibly hot fourth state of matter for researchers to conduct in-depth studies. In addition, dusty plasmas contain suspended particles. The tails of comets and the rings of Saturn are examples of dusty plasmas in space. Even the devices where cell phones are manufactured contain dusty plasma.

Since 2014, this rare device has been configured for specific experiments with the flexibility of the needs of the research project where plasmas can be formed, and microscopic dust can be added while being exposed to super high magnetic fields — up to 80,000 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. Cameras provide detailed photos of the dusty plasmas during the experiments for researchers to analyze and deduce invaluable information.

“MDPX is a unique plasma device in the U.S. Devices around the world with similar capabilities are extremely limited,” said Dr. Saikat Chakraborty Thakur, research assistant professor and the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation award in partnership with Mississippi State University (MSU) granted in 2023. AU received $300,909 of this collaborative project, while MSU received $357,868.

Normally, dust settles close to the electrodes. “In collaboration with Professor Chuji Wang Wang at MSU, we are working on a new technique called optical trapping, where we use lasers and sophisticated optics to trap these dust particles in plasmas anywhere inside the MDPX chamber,” Dr. Chakraborty Thakur said.

Dr. Chakraborty Thakur is also a part of another collaboration that won a recent award of $748,280 from NASA, led by Innovative Aerospace Inc., to support research in lunar dust mitigation techniques for future human missions to the moon.

“We are coming up with strategies to remove the complex lunar shard-like dust through simulations based on Earth conditions which we will experimentally validate at Auburn, before doing simulations of the environment on the moon,” said Cameron Royer, lab manager in the MDPX laboratory.

The lab has built specialized devices that can introduce lunar dust to complicated structures and investigate different mitigation strategies.

“At Auburn, we are pushing boundaries on research on lunar dust particles, in partnership with Thomas Stapleton of Innovative Aerospacein Massachusetts, that impact research applicable to the safety ofspacesuits for astronauts and even future space tourism and Mars missions,” said Royer.