Dr. Edward Thomas Jr.’s ‘dusty’ plasma research impacts industry, space and more

Dr. Edward Thomas Jr. says there are opportunities for Alabama to leverage the technologies developed by FTPP to create positive impacts for its citizens.

New nanomaterials and new protections for satellites and space-based communications are just two potential outcomes of research into the behaviors of “dusty” plasmas being led at Auburn University by Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) lead researcher Dr. Edward Thomas Jr., dean of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics and professor of physics.

“My research group is particularly interested in a novel form of low temperature plasma known as a ‘dusty’ or ‘complex’ plasma,” says Dr. Thomas, who is originally from St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. He has been at Auburn for 24 years and refers to the work of plasma scientists as the “hidden” industry. 

“From Mobile to Huntsville and everywhere in between, there are opportunities for the state to leverage the technologies developed by FTPP to create positive impacts for the citizens of Alabama,” he says.

dusty plasma
The pink glow of a plasma and an illuminated cloud of dust particles, shown as green bands in the center of the image, in the Auburn University Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment device.

Big impacts

Plasma physics impacts our lives through so many different technologies that are often overlooked because they are so commonplace, Dr. Thomas says.

“Plasmas are critical in the manufacturing of nearly all microelectronics, plasmas are at the core of fluorescent lighting, plasmas are used to treat and improve material properties, from aircraft parts to medical equipment, and plasmas are being used to develop new technologies for the agricultural industry through ‘cold plasma’ treatments that can help improve crop yields and reduce harmful bacteria in food packaging.”

His research focuses on what happens when small, solid particles – usually micrometer sized or smaller – are placed in a plasma environment.

“For reference, a single strand of human hair is usually about 20-30 micrometers in width,” he says. “So, think of an object about five or six times smaller in width than a human hair!”

Dr. Thomas’ group performs experiments in which these particles are suspended in the plasma gas.

FTPP is an Alabama coalition of nine universities and a research corporation, supported by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). It 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.

FTPP is sponsoring Dr. Thomas’ research into three areas.

“One study focuses on how these small particles become electrically charged in a plasma and, more importantly, how to control their charge so that we can manipulate those particles in the plasma,” says Dr. Thomas.

“A second is a laboratory simulation of dusty plasmas in the space environment that is focused on understanding how the charged dust particles can affect the propagation of waves, which is important for areas such as protecting satellites and space-based communications,” he says.

“Finally, the third project is focused on actually growing dust particles through chemical processes in a plasma, in an attempt to make new kinds of nanomaterials that may have future industrial applications.”

Fusion energy research, which is based on using very hot plasmas, first drew Dr. Thomas’ interest as a high school student.

“As I went through my undergraduate and graduate school training, that interest evolved into a broader interest into the physics of the plasma state of matter so that most of my current work is in the area of low temperature plasmas,” he says. “I would say that I’ve been interested in plasma science research for well over 30 years.”

simulation to discovery

Many recent experiments involve the use of large magnetic fields to control certain properties of the plasma, Dr. Thomas says. But magnetized plasmas can introduce additional phenomena that interfere with the study of some dusty plasma properties. 

“Over the last several years, through a combination of experimental and theoretical work by our doctoral students, we have developed a much deeper understanding of the properties of the magnetized plasma,” Dr. Thomas says. “In particular, our computational student developed a simulation that predicted a new type of plasma behavior that was then discovered by one of our experimental students in the laboratory!”

The FTPP project is critical to supporting Auburn’s most valuable resource, which is people, Dr. Thomas says.

“FTPP supports undergraduate and graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers, at Auburn University who are the real drivers of our success,” he says. 

“The undergraduate students get to experience the wonder and excitement of becoming engaged in research. The graduate students and post-docs are doing the hard work every day in the laboratories and bringing new ideas to the faculty.”

Through FTPP’s support, Auburn is able to engage with more plasma physics students than ever before, says Dr. Thomas.

“Most importantly, we believe that we are providing all the students with critical, hands-on training that will benefit them whether they stay in academia or go to work in industry,” he says. “Our goal is to leverage our investments in our students to positively impact the plasma-based research industries in Alabama.”