Newswise — A partnership comprising nine universities in Alabama, including The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as the lead institution, has been awarded a $20 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The grant will fund the development of new predictive plasma-surface interaction technologies for the nation’s aerospace, manufacturing, energy, environment, and agricultural sectors. Serving as a Principal Investigator on the project is Dr. Gary Zank, director of UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research and chair of the university’s Department of Space Science.

Dr. Zank, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said he views the award as a statewide team effort. “It’s not something that could have been done by one person at all. All the co-principal investigators and the institutional leads were outstanding.”

Zank also credited UAH Vice President for Research and Economic Development Ray Vaughn and his team. “They were outstanding in providing all of the help and resources that we needed to pull the proposal together, and the Alabama EPSCoR committee – led by Dr. Christopher Lawson – went out of their way to provide us with both assistance and expertise.” 

Ronald Gray, President pro tem of the Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama System, praised Dr. Zank and his team on the accomplishment.

“Congratulations to Dr. Gary Zank and his team on the new National Science Foundation research award,” Gray said. “In recognition of his global achievements in teaching, research and innovation, Dr. Zank was recently named Trustee Professor, which is the highest award for a faculty member in The University of Alabama System.

“For more than 30 years, our three UA System campuses have been carving a leading edge in research through the EPSCoR consortium, improving education, the economy and scientific knowledge to benefit our state and nation. This new award will bolster the science and engineering infrastructure here in Alabama and promote workforce development. The Board of Trustees is committed to building the knowledge-based economy in Alabama, and we commend Dr. Zank and his colleagues for their breakthrough research to achieve our shared goal.”

Entitled “Connecting the Plasma Universe to Plasma Technology in Alabama: The Science and Technology of Low-Temperature Plasma” (CPU2AL), the project seeks to understand, predict, and control the transfer of power from electromagnetic fields to electrons, ions, atoms, molecules and surfaces, and chemical reactions in plasma.

“Most technologies based on low-temperature plasma are developed empirically, yet low-temperature plasma constitutes more than 90 percent of all matter in the universe, making it the bedrock of much of space physics, non-fusion plasma research, and plasma astrophysics,” he explains. “It also underpins the entire information technology industry as well as most high-tech materials-related manufacturing industries.”

By leveraging Alabama’s strengths in fundamental low-temperature plasma science, the research team hopes instead to develop new predictive plasma-surface interaction technologies. “CPU2AL addresses two major challenges facing low-temperature plasma science today,” says Dr. Zank. “The first is incorporating the full complexity of particle kinetics and energy flow into theory, models, and experiment, and the second is modeling the transfer of energy mediated by collective processes such as turbulence and self-organization. It’s understanding and controlling these processes that ultimately determines the utility of low-temperature plasma.”

The team plans to address these two challenges by developing three strategic research thrusts. The first is a basic understanding of plasma kinetics, which will determine how distribution functions of ionized and neutral species are formed and what the appropriate kinetic and fluid descriptions are of electrons, ions, and neutrals in low-temperature plasma space, laboratory, and industrial plasma. This is turn will enable the development of diagnostics that measure plasma properties in low-temperature plasma far from equilibrium.

The second is a basic understanding of collective processes in order to develop models of waves, instabilities, nonlinear processes, turbulence, and self-organization in low-temperature plasma that will enable the creation and control of large volumes of quiescent plasma or highly localized turbulent states for the manipulation of physical, thermal, electrical and chemical processes. This, in turn, will facilitate the development of efficient numerical algorithms to model collective effects that influence microwave/THz/laser-produced plasma used in fast electronic devices, directed energy systems, plasmonic, and optoelectronic devices.

And the third is a basic understanding of plasma interactions with solid, liquid, and soft matter (biomaterials) and bio-matter (seeds and food) surfaces, which has a twofold purpose. It will determine what plasma species, concentrations, spatial distributions, and gas/electron temperatures are associated with the synthesis of novel covalently-bonded 2-D and 3-D super-hard structures in the C/N/O/B system, as well as how large-area deposition of these super-hard materials can be achieved. And it will determine the processes responsible for the plasma activation of prosthetic biomaterials that do not affect their bioactivity for use in prosthetic biomaterials, tissue scaffolds of complicated geometry, and seed disinfection and food safety.

Along with UAH, the partnership includes the University of Alabama (lead: Dr. R. Branam), the University of Alabama at Birmingham (lead: Dr. Y. Vohra), Auburn University (lead: Dr. E. Thomas), Tuskegee University (lead: Dr. V. Rangari), the University of South Alabama (lead: Dr. E. Spencer), Alabama A&M University (leads: Dr. R. Mentreddy and Dr. E. Cebert), Alabama State University (lead: Dr. K. Vig), and Oakwood University (lead: Dr. A. Volkov), with additional assistance from CFD Research Corporation (lead: Dr. V. Kolobov), a computational fluid dynamics software company located in Cummings Research Park. These members bring “a range of expertise in space science, laboratory plasma physics, materials, biosciences, and manufacturing to this endeavor,” says Dr. Zank. “And any gaps we may have in personnel expertise will be filled with the addition of five new faculty hires over the duration of the grant.”