Grad student explores key points of interaction between laser & plasma
By Trevor Pritchard
Frank Detering describes himself as a problem-solver, and his research indirectly examines one of the most absorbing problems of modern science.
"A big focus in plasma physics research is the search for fusion energy," says Detering, who was born and raised in Damme, Germany.
His PhD project, entitled "Electron Transport and Ion Acoustic Dynamics in Laser Produced Plasmas," explores the secondary effects that would arise in experiments designed to harness fusion energy as a reliable energy source.
To create fusion energy, the process used by the sun to heat our solar system, Detering explains that intense, concentrated lasers would need to be fired at a solid target. The extreme intensity of these lasers would create a superheated gaseous atmosphere around the target called plasma, in which negatively-charged electrons separate from their positively-charged nuclei and move about freely. This process results in temperature fluctuations within the system.
For Detering, the existence of this ionized plasma is problematic, because the changes in temperature resulting from electron transport would make it difficult to properly focus the lasers upon the target. "It's like a ball," says Detering, "If you want to compress it, you have to compress it equally on all sides."
While studying the movement of electrons within the plasma, Detering came across an interesting, if perplexing, second variable. He discovered that the ions created when the electrons separated from the nuclei would travel in wave-like patterns, a problem for Detering's analysis.
"Energy transport can cause ion waves to become unstable. Just like waves on the surface of the sea can grow if the wind continues to blow strongly."
"It's important to know if this happens as it changes the characteristics of the heating and energy transport significantly."
Working with supervisor Andrei Smolyakov, Detering has created an algorithm to account for these variables. His work has been published in the 2002 volume of Computer Physics Communications. As well, with fellow colleague Yuriy Tyshetskiy, Detering has built what he calls a "high-performance computer cluster," designed to process his theoretical experiments 12 times faster than could be done on a normal computer.
Detering has nothing but praise for the U of S Department of Physics.
Leaving his home town in 1998 took a great deal of courage, but Detering has adjusted quite well to his new environment. "It was not too difficult. The University is very helpful to international students." He admits, however, that the academic environments in Germany and Canada are somewhat dissimilar.
"The most noticeable difference to me is the relation between graduate student and professor. For example, being on a first-name basis with my supervisor even before starting studies is possible in Germany but uncommon. The relation here seems to be more collegial and I prefer that."
Although Detering has acclimatized himself to life in Canada, he plans to return to Europe to continue his research. His post-doctoral work will continue in the plasma physics field, although he admits that even he doesn't know exactly what such work would involve. Nevertheless, he does foresee a number of potential applications stemming from the research he and his colleagues are conducting.
"I believe my work will add to the assortment of tools available to the understanding of laser plasma interaction. [My work] provides means to investigate the efficiency of X-Ray laser designs and to interpret some of the current experiments."
When asked if fusion energy was on the immediate horizon, however, Detering just chuckled.
"Not in my lifetime."