BYLINE: Jim Steele

Newswise — HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (March 8, 2023) ­– A statewide University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH)-led effort to fund, develop and commercialize plasma research and the high-tech workforce it requires is reaching out to a broad coalition of researchers, students, businesspeople and the public with a goal of stimulating thousands of high-paying jobs in Alabama and the Southeast.

“Effective outreach is essential for the success of the FTPP initiative,” says Laura Provenzani, FTPP education, outreach and diversity coordinator. “Our aim is to support the FTPP's vision of establishing Alabama as a global leader in plasma science engineering and laying a solid foundation for plasma science research and industry with a skilled workforce.”

Funded by a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant, the Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) coalition is nine universities and a research corporation. FTPP aims to transition plasma research into agricultural, manufacturing, space science, space weather prediction and other applications, establishing Alabama as a Southeastern regional hub for plasma science expertise and creating thousands of high-paying technical careers in the state and region.

Besides UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, members are The University of Alabama, The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Auburn University (AU), Tuskegee University, the University of South Alabama (USA), Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University (ASU), Oakwood University and CFD Research Corp.

In addition to funding research and establishing its external advisory and industry liaison boards, FTPP has begun reaching out to students with educational and internship opportunities, and has launched a website that will evolve into a central information point for collaborators, stakeholders, news media, students and the public, Provenzani says.

There are four internship opportunities for students in the Southeastern United States. 

  • The Regional Introduction to Plasma Physics summer internship is a nine-week program where undergraduate students can select a research project and work with an FTPP faculty member. This internship is available to students at various partner schools, including UAH, ASU, AU, USA and UAB. Students will gain experience in plasma research and interact with industry experts. 
  • The Corporate Internship Plasma Training in Alabama is a 10-week program that provides students at FTPP partner institutions with experiences in plasma technology applications at private companies. Both undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines are eligible for the program. 
  • The South Eastern Research Experiences for Undergraduates (SE REU)  is a program catered to undergraduate students enrolled at historically black colleges and universities across the Southeast. Selected interns will be enrolled in a quality REU program at one of the partner universities (UAH, UAB, ASU). The goal is to engage a diverse, educated and skilled pool of scientists and engineers to promote long-term relationships between students and investigators to enhance the Alabama workforce. 
  • The International Space Weather Camp is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to work with students and faculty internationally from UAH, the South African National Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center. The camp aims to teach students about space physics and its impact on modern society. It also promotes personal, professional and cultural connections.

“What makes these internships exceptional is that they are open to students from any STEM major,” says Provenzani. “Each major background brings a unique skillset to the table, and the internships allow students to explore research in a hands-on and different way.”

For children and teens in Alabama, FTPP plans and executes outreach events geared toward stimulating interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and FTPP’s Alabama Science and Engineering Fairs team works to broaden and grow participation in science and engineering fairs statewide.

FTPP’s efforts are geared toward commercializing manufacturing, scientific and agricultural uses for plasma, a state of matter consisting of a collection of ionized particles, electrically neutral atoms and molecules that makes up more than 90% of the observable universe. Plasma underpins several high-tech manufacturing industries, as well as driving processes in the sun that unleash energy and are also vital to a system of space weather prediction necessary to protect electrical and communications systems on Earth and satellites and spacecraft in orbit.

“Plasma is so interesting intrinsically because it offers a myriad number of ways to transfer energy from and to all sorts of scales,” says Dr. Gary Zank, FTPP’s principal investigator, the director of UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the UAH Department of Space Science.

“The ability to move energy around and deposit at scales of one's choosing, from incredibly small to very large, means that plasma is becoming a central element of very sophisticated manufacturing at all scales,” says Dr. Zank, who is also a full member of the National Academy of Sciences. “If Alabama wants to become a leader in super-high-end technology development and manufacturing, we will need to learn how to harness the almost limitless possibilities inherent in plasma science.” 

Plasma has the ability to interact with and create other interesting particles and molecules that can be highly reactive chemically, Dr. Zank says, and that can provide non-destructive ways to decontaminate food or sterilize objects.

“This could be a game-changer in moving us away from destructive chemicals that can harm us and the environment,” he says. “It can help improve plant yields from seeds decontaminated of harmful fungi, for example, that limit germination. So, for agriculture, plasma can be enormously helpful.”

FTPP is on the cusp of translating some very interesting ideas to technology, Dr. Zank says, but it requires educating everyone from students to state legislators to the possibilities inherent in plasma, as well as finding new entrepreneurs who will create billion-dollar companies that exploit the possibilities inherent in plasma in one form or another.

“So, there is an element of public rollout, an element of public education, plus transforming the unseen engine of scientific research into technologies that can benefit society in general, as well as being profitable business ventures,” he says. “It needs research, workforce development and engineering – as well as people willing to adopt new approaches – which means outreach in all its facets.”