With a rare "ion beamline," Chad Sosolik will literally make star stuff in his Clemson University lab.
Funded by a just-announced $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant, the device will allow scientists to strip atoms of all their electrons, producing highly charged ions that in nature are created only in the bellies of stars.
"It's really a puddle of stellar matter," said Sosolik, an associate professor of physics and principal investigator on the project in collaboration with colleagues Sean Brittain, Rod Harrell, Jian Luo, and Pete McNulty. "In an iron atom, for instance, this produces a highly charged ion at extremely high temperature — on the order of 10 million Kelvin — like the inside of a star.
"Such highly charged ions don't exist on Earth outside of a lab environment. They fly through space, hit the atmosphere and immediately pick up electrons," he said. "So this is a rare opportunity for us to be able to observe them and actually use them in ways that weren't possible before."
At the heart of the new laboratory will be an Electron Beam Ion Trap, or EBIT, which takes stars one step further: It allows scientists to trap the highly charged ions in an electromagnetic field and then release them down a vacuum tube — the beamline — where they are focused on tiny targets. Potential research projects range from new semiconductor materials and cancer-fighting particle beams to more basic science in astrophysics and the properties that govern the quantum mechanical tunneling of electrons.
Scientists have been making ions controllably for more than a century, typically removing a few electrons from an atom, leaving behind a slightly positive charge. The Electron Beam Ion Trap, though, can strip all the electrons from an atom, leaving a huge reservoir of energy that the ion can unleash on the matter that it contacts.
"A single highly charged ion can deliver more energy — on a precise scale — than the biggest laser that exists, but it can be maintained easier than a laser and is easily reproducible," Sosolik said. "What can you do with it — we literally don't know. Pretty much anything we try is going to be new."
The Clemson beamline, which will take two years to build and make fully operational, will be just the third Electron Beam Ion Trap-based beamline of its kind in the United States and one of only 17 on Earth. Even before the machine has been constructed, other universities and research centers are working with Sosolik to establish collaborative arrangements that will bring exceptionally varied and high-level research to Clemson.
"This is exceptional technology that opens vast new opportunities for scientific research," said Esin Gulari, dean of Clemson's College of Engineering and Science. "It's possible to see wide new avenues of collaboration across academic disciplines and among universities in putting this technology to work. But what is most exciting about it is the opportunities we can't yet imagine."
Sosolik sees an immediate impact in research on new industrial materials, such as radiation-hardened electronics destined for the space program.
"If you're sending materials into space, you want to know if it will continue to operate when bombarded by highly charged ions that are a component of the solar wind. We can simulate the solar wind on the ground and see if the material is impervious to radiation," Sosolik said. "This is really important if you consider how we keep shrinking the size of our electronics. In space-bound equipment, with all your electronics packed into a very small area, you could lose it all with one ion impact."
He also has plans to make it available to scientists in other areas, including biomedical science and nuclear fusion.