From left, Malik Tahiyat, from University of South Carolina, and Sandia scientists Dirk van den Bekerom, Erxiong Huang, and Jonathan Frank are all performing experiments in the Plasma Research Facility. Photo by Angie Zhang

Center of collaboration

April 28, 2022 8:00 am Published by

It may not be common knowledge within Sandia that the Labs are home to the Plasma Research Facility, but those who study plasma around the nation and the world are not only acutely aware, they are also coming in great numbers to perform experiments and work with the experts.

“There are critical technologies in the world — anything with a microchip in it — that is based on plasma science. Manufacturing chips requires plasmas,” said Shane Sickafoose, administrative head of the program.

The Sandia facility was fully funded by the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences program in the fall of 2019.

“The depth and breadth of Sandia’s technical expertise and facilities enable collaborations not possible anywhere other than at a National Laboratory,” Sickafoose added. “The ability to have a team including experts in both experimental and modeling/simulation efforts focused on a problem is truly unique.”

So the team started to invite collaborators.

“The overall idea was that there would be proposals from universities, other national labs, both in the U.S. and abroad, to do collaborative research,” said manager Nils Hansen, who was part of the PRF from the start and helped write the funding proposal. “My first user was Professor Ju from Princeton. He was studying plasma chemical looping. We chose them because he had a compelling argument that he was stuck with the instrumentation at Princeton and wanted to take advantage of what we had here at this facility.”

Tackling new problems in new ways

Since then, even throughout the pandemic, the PRF has been able to host multiple scientists studying a host of plasma effects. Plasma scientist Jonathan Frank said some of the studies have been directly influenced by urgent needs.

“The second user I hosted was Professor Tanvir Farouk from the University of South Carolina,” Frank said. “He and his student were looking at the effects of having water vapor in a plasma for use in sterilization purposes. The pandemic made research about killing viruses on surfaces particularly relevant.”

Chemistry researcher Chris Kliewer is another host for the growing network of collaborators. He said that in the last couple of years, only U.S.-based scientists could easily come to do work at the PRF. That is changing.

“On the next round a number of people were coming from overseas,” Kliewer said. “It’s kind of interesting that the proposals we are seeing to do research here are ones that span a couple of our labs within the PRF because they have multiple interests and goals.”

Bringing computer power to bear

Modeler Matt Hopkins added that the experimental capabilities are linked with a capability most labs lack: advanced simulation capabilities/algorithms, the robust computational power to take advantage of them and experienced modelers who know how to get the most from the computing capabilities.

“We have multiple high-performance computing platforms. An astounding amount of computing resources available,” he said. “We have simulation codes that have benefitted from decades of DOE investments. They have access to world-leading experts to harness that computing power.”

And it is that breadth of capabilities that Hopkins believes will benefit the entire sector of plasma research.

“I’ve been in low-temperature plasma community since the last millennium. It can be extremely difficult to collaborate with folks outside the Labs, but the PRF has set up a venue for that,” he explained. “There are very, very few places that have all of these things: the computational machine; the fancy code; and the experts. The plasma problems that they are modeling, being able to solve problems at the scale that we can, it’s just not something a lot of people have access to.”

People at the heart of the Facility

Frank underscored Hopkins’ point that the PRF is about more than technological capabilities.

“It’s not just the equipment, it’s the expertise that has been developed over a long time,” he said. “Now we are developing new capabilities as we get new users.”

Hansen agreed.

“We’ve definitely had examples of proposals we never thought of. This is something we would never have started without the user proposal. We wanted to help the plasma community as a whole,” he said.

Hopkins sees a broad future of innovation and invention coming from the PRF.

“There are a lot of current industrial uses — semiconductor manufacturing, lighting, medical applications,” he said. “But this is just the beginning. Think of fantastical things: thrusters like you would see in Star Wars or new applications like nanoparticle synthesis, medical sterilization techniques, or virus decontamination from plasmas. There is a frontier of new applications for plasma that are becoming important.”

A frontier that Sandia is at the forefront of.

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