UCLA Spotlight


Walter Gekelman, Plasma Physics

  • By Stuart Wolpert
  • Published Jun 1, 2002 8:00 AM

UCLA physicists are learning the secrets of plasma — the turbulent, hot, ionized, gas-like matter believed to make up more than 99% of the visible universe, including the sun, stars, galaxies and the vast majority of the solar system.

UCLA's Basic Plasma Science Facility has been awarded a $4.8-million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation to become the country's first national research facility for scientists worldwide to study the mysterious properties of plasma.

The centerpiece of the facility, housed in the Science and Technology Research Building, is an enormous machine called the Large Plasma Device, which weighs more than 80 tons.

It took more than three years for Walter Gekelman, professor of physics and director of the facility, and five colleagues, to build the machine -- from the sophisticated electronics and plasma source to the plumbing and welding. The machine is unique in the world and allows physicists to create and analyze plasma and plasma waves of superheated, energized gas.

"Studying plasma waves in space is like finding one tooth of a dinosaur and trying to determine what the whole dinosaur looked like," Gekelman says. "In our machine, we can see the whole dinosaur."

Plasma is a fourth state of matter -- distinct from solids, liquids and gases -- in which electrons have been stripped away to leave positively charged atoms or molecules. "Much about plasmas and how they behave is very poorly understood," Gekelman says. "Our machine will help us understand plasmas.

"We can make measurements in tens of thousands of locations," he adds, "using technology we have developed over 30 years."

"This is the best facility in the world for physicists to conduct controlled experiments to understand the properties of plasma -- research that could have significant applications for this country," says Tony Chan, dean of physical sciences in the College of Letters and Science. "UCLA will be host to international physicists working at the forefront of plasma physics."