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Physicists Get Charged Up Testing Demonstrations to Spark Excitement in Future Scientists

Published: 05/07/2019

By: Maria Gebhardt

Each year, faculty and students from Auburn University’s Department of Physics participate in the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics Annual Meeting.

“I enjoy being part of this outreach opportunity to help students understand more about plasma physics,” explained Dr. Ed Thomas.

At the annual meeting held at different locations around the United States, a Science Teacher Day and Student Plasma Science Expo provide local middle and high school students, as well as their teachers, an opportunity to learn more about the role of plasma physics.

For the last decade, Dr. Thomas has worked to create fun experiments to spark interest in science at this annual meeting. In the photo above, he and his team including graduate students Lori Scott and Taylor Hall use Styrofoam balls to explain a balance of forces on small objects. These simple demonstrations simulate the dusty plasmas in his lab, illustrating that plasmas are made up of charged particles.  Using a fast column of air, the Styrofoam balls can become charged as they rub against each other and the walls of the container.  Once the air is removed, the charged balls float in the container – just as they would in the laboratory.  

“I hope that these interactive experiments not only excite students to learn more about science, but help them realize that 20 years from now they could be conducting research in a lab and helping to inspire future scientists,” Dr. Thomas added.

In his lab in the Department of Physics at the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), Dr. Thomas works with equipment that is the only one of its kind – a Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment, which holds a 6,000-pound superconducting magnet. As the associate dean for research and graduate studies at COSAM and the Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professor in the Department of Physics, he conducts research in the areas of experimental and computational plasma physics. His work is supported by the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy - Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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