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New DOE-Supported Center Focused on Problems in Plasma Physics, Fusion Energy

The University of Maryland and UCLA will jointly host a new Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE). The center will focus on solving key problems in plasma physics, particularly those related to the development of fusion energy -- a long-sought energy alternative that could reduce oil dependence and lower emissions of greenhouse gases, which are associated with global warming.

Big Problems, 'Small' Solutions
In nature, many problems exist that involve such a wide range of scales that they are too complicated to solve directly, even with the most powerful computers available now or in the foreseeable future. Instead, scientists must develop clever numerical algorithms -- such as methods to break up a very large problem into a set of simpler problems that can then be solved on a computer -- while correctly keeping track of the interactions between the physical processes that are occurring in different parts of the problem that they are trying to solve. The new Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics will apply this approach to plasma physics problems.

"In recent years, applied mathematicians and others have made exciting progress on new ways to tackle multiscale problems, and we look forward to trying these ideas out on some long-standing problems in plasma physics," says co-principal investigator William Dorland, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Physics, the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics (IREAP) and the Center for Scientific Computation and Mathematical Modeling (CSCAMM).

These long-standing problems include the nature of small-scale turbulence in large fusion energy devices and the interaction of large-scale slow magnetic island instabilities with small-scale, fast turbulent fluctuations. These processes are important because they control how hot a fusion device can get and how much fusion power it produces. A better understanding of these processes could significantly reduce the cost and improve the feasibility of a fusion power plant. The United States and other countries are currently involved in a long-term research program to develop these fusion power plants, which would be environmentally attractive, would not contribute to global warming and would reduce dependence on oil imports. These problems also have applications in understanding plasmas and magnetic fields in the wider universe, such as role of magnetic instabilities and reconnection in solar storms.

Bringing Together Researchers From Many Fields
The new joint center will build on existing programs and facilities at both schools. At Maryland it will draw particularly on the work, facilities, and researchers of IREAP and CSCAMM. Like IREAP and CSCAMM, the new joint Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics will bring together experts from a variety of fields. From areas such as applied mathematics, plasma physics, computational science, chemical engineering and astrophysics, researchers who have been developing ideas for how to handle multiscale problems will together apply their ideas to issues in plasma physics. Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan are also participating in the new center. The Maryland/UCLA center was one of two new fusion centers funded by the DOE. The University of Rochester will host the other center.

"These two Fusion Science Centers will strengthen basic research into the frontiers of fusion science, a central mission of the department's fusion energy sciences program," says Raymond L. Orbach, Director of DOE's Office of Science. "The centers will train students to meet the U.S. fusion program's future needs and help our fusion program communicate about our progress and accomplishments with the broader scientific community."

For more information on the Maryland/UCLA Fusion Science Center, contact Bill Dorland at 301-405-1647 or

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