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Charting Plasma Propagation: The CGA Plasma Lab

Stefanie Senkow
April 16, 2019

Charting Plasma Propagation: The CGA Plasma LabIt is mind over matter at the Coast Guard Academy. Plasma, to be exact! That’s right, the fourth state of matter is making electromagnetic waves at the CGA Plasma Lab (CGAPL). Funded by the Class of 1945, the Joint Directed Energy Transition Office, the Directed Energy Physical Society, and the American Physical Society, the CGAPL is giving cadets unparalleled undergraduate research opportunities.

“Plasma is the most prevalent state of matter,” said CDR. Royce W. James, Ph.D. Associate Professor at CGA. “That being said, plasma has the potential to revolutionize our energy sources, space travel, the Coast Guard and the world.”

Despite not having a physics major, but a newly formed concentration within its science department, CGA is at the forefront of undergraduate plasma research, being the only undergraduate institution in the country that has Thomson Scattering diagnostic, a unique laser technology used to measure the temperature and density of plasma.

A self-proclaimed “plasma enthusiast,” First Class Cadet (1/c) Annika Lehenbauer is currently at CGAPL working in collaboration with the Navy to develop an Impedance Probe to collect data on plasmas in outer space.

“We’re really excited to be able to be immersed in this community of physics-based research, especially considering there is no physics major at the Academy,” said 1/c Lehenbauer, a marine and environmental science (MES) major, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in physics with a minor in astronomy.

Electrical engineering major, 3/c Maylis Yepez started her plasma lab research at the beginning of her Academy career as a fourth class. She is currently leading the Helicon Plasma Experiment (HPX), the main CGAPL experiment that uses the diagnostics described above with a host of others to measure the plasma’s “vital signs,” the temperature, electric potential, and density of a plasma.

“If we understand the characteristics of the plasma we can harness its energy for practical uses,” said 3/c Yepez.

One of those practical uses is using plasmas for water treatment. Rising populations and increased waste production of industrial nations, plus water access and control is growing strategic importance squarely in the Coast Guard’s area of responsibilities. While pollution monitoring and its impact on ecosystems is slowly being understood, very little progress has been made in providing actual countermeasures for water contaminates.

CDR James leads a team of collaborators from North Carolina A&T University, of Michigan, Navy Research Labs, and IBM competing for a $7.4 million grant from the Department of Energy to create a “Center for Plasma Water Treatment” (CP-WT) where they will align efforts in the development of viable plasma dielectric barrier discharge water treatment processes and systems. We wish them luck in being selected for the grant sometime in summer 2019!