National Academies Press: OpenBook

Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications (1995)

Chapter:Theory and Computational Plasma Physics

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Suggested Citation:"Theory and Computational Plasma Physics." National Research Council. 1995. Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4936.

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 17 following way. Healthy, small-scale experimental research programs in plasma science typically involve a senior researcher, a postdoctoral researcher, and three to six graduate students. In addition, due to the nature of plasma experiments, an electronics technician is frequently required. The cost of such a group, including equipment purchases, typically ranges from $200,000 to $400,000 per year. (See Chapter 8 for details.) Given the erosion of the experimental infrastructure in basic plasma science, typical initial equipment purchases of from $300,000 to $600,000 are required for each new program. Based on the decline of basic experimental plasma science over the past 20 years, the panel estimates that a total of 30 to 40 new programs will be required to revitalize this area. Thus, the cost of such an effort would be approximately $15 million per year. The panel's survey of the experimental research community indicates that the present number of efforts in the United States of the type described above, basic experimental plasma research, is less than 20. The required number of new groups (30 to 40) was estimated by considering the minimum-size scientific community that would provide sufficient cross-fertilization of ideas and stimulation, spread over this broad area of basic plasma science. Consideration of the size of a research community necessary to cover the existing range of forefront scientific problems (discussed in Part III) gives a similar estimate. Theory and Computational Plasma Physics Complementing experimental observation, theory, and computation are critical components of modern plasma science. The theoretical problems in plasma science are formidable. The goal is to achieve quantitative understanding of nonlinear, many-body phenomena in these nonequilibrium systems. Much progress has been made in this area in the past two decades, particularly in applied areas where there have been concentrations of effort, such as fusion, space plasmas, and plasmas relevant to defense applications. Examples include magnetohydrodynamic phenomena relevant to tokamak fusion plasmas, where the stability of these plasmas and the macroscopic dynamics of unstable plasmas are now quantitatively understood. Beyond such fluid models of plasma behavior, progress has been made in more detailed and powerful statistical mechanical descriptions of plasmas, including the effects of large particle orbits on plasma stability and the so-called gyrokinetic model of plasma dynamics. Many other nonlinear plasma problems have been addressed successfully, including the dynamics that results when an intense beam of electromagnetic radiation is incident upon a non-uniform plasma. Fundamental understanding of a variety of coherent structures has been achieved—vortices and nonlinear phase-space correlations, for example. These concepts are of considerable significance because they have the potential to lead to simplified descriptions of otherwise complicated plasma behavior. Numerical simulations have provided deeper insights into a variety of plasma processes.

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Plasma science is the study of ionized states of matter. This book discusses the field's potential contributions to society and recommends actions that would optimize those contributions. It includes an assessment of the field's scientific and technological status as well as a discussion of broad themes such as fundamental plasma experiments, theoretical and computational plasma research, and plasma science education.

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