Scientists begin effort to stir up a cosmic dynamo in the lab

October 25, 2012 by Terry Devitt  
A heated electron emitting cathode (the bright spot at center) lights up the interior of a three-meter cast aluminum sphere used to contain plasmas, in an effort to create the kind of dynamo observed at the center of the Earth, sun and many other types of stars. Credit: Cary Forest laboratory

For scientists trying to understand the subtleties of cosmic dynamos—the magnetic field-inducing phenomena at the hearts of planets, stars and galaxies—the physics, for the most part, must be done at vast distances.

Soon, however, instead of probing dynamos on distant stars or at the inaccessible core of the Earth, scientists may be able to put dynamos under the proverbial microscope as physicists at UW–Madison are on the verge of creating a plasma dynamo in the lab. The ability to create dynamos that accurately mimic those that occur in nature promises to reveal the underlying mysteries of cosmic dynamos and how they generate huge, powerful magnetic fields.

"Now, we study these astrophysical dynamos by observing them and through computer modeling based on imperfect theory," explains Cary Forest, a physics professor leading the new experimental effort. "Physics, ultimately, is an experimental science, and we need devices where we can turn knobs to test theories."

Dynamos, Forest says, are . They are either human contrivances or natural phenomena that can generate electricity from motion. "With come magnetic fields," says Forest, noting that the sun, a plasma, generates a magnetic field that we observe as or that sometimes lash the Earth, creating all kinds of electromagnetic havoc.

The device at the heart of the new effort is a specially built three-meter diameter hollow aluminum sphere. Lined with 3,000 powerful rare earth magnets, the vessel is intended to contain and stir plasmas heated to 500,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Over the course of the past two weeks, Forest and his group have generated a series of brief plasma events, each lasting about one second. Plasmas are gases heated to the point where electrons shake free from their nuclei and therefore are free to carry electrical current, an intrinsic characteristic of the magnetic fields generated by cosmic dynamos.

The Earth's dynamo is critical not only because it generates a magnetic field that helps us find north, but also because the field it generates stretches from the inner core of our planet to space where it creates the magnetosphere and deflects the solar wind. Without that deflective magnetic power, the solar wind would destroy the ozone layer and leave us exposed to searing ultraviolet rays from the sun.

On Earth, the geodynamo is spun to life in a swirl of molten iron at the core of the planet. Until the last century, the Earth's was the only known cosmic magnetic field. But scientists have since discovered magnetic fields emanating from the sun, other planets, a variety of star types and star clusters. Even entire galaxies are now known to generate magnetic fields, which stretch for vast distances—tens of thousands of light years.

A critical question for scientists, and one Forest and his group hope to tease out of their experimental work, is how cosmic dynamos arise to begin with. "Creating a plasma dynamo in the lab allows us to vary the conditions that make it work, and we can observe how, when and why dynamos come into being," Forest says. "And we can make measurements that just aren't available through observation. For example, it is impossible to send a satellite into the sun to measure the magnetic field deep inside. It is possible to put a probe into our plasma dynamo experiment."

The new Wisconsin experiment, Forest adds, will also help refine theory and improve the computer models scientists have devised to simulate cosmic dynamos.

"Computers can't simulate the sun, for example, because it is so large and computers do not have the speed or memory to do so. But our experiment, while able to generate magnetic fields, can actually be modeled by computers and those models can be tested directly."

Explore further: With stimulus aid, scientists hope to mimic nature's dynamos

Related Stories

With stimulus aid, scientists hope to mimic nature's dynamos

October 9, 2009

( -- In the cosmos, all celestial objects - planets, stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies - have magnetic fields. On Earth, the magnetic field of our home planet is most easily observed in a compass where ...

Vessel to contain cosmic force takes shape

July 21, 2011

At the heart of most celestial objects is a dynamo. The Earth's dynamo, spun to life in the molten metal core of our planet, generates a magnetic field that helps us find north and, perhaps more critically, shields us from ...

Creation of a magnetic field in a turbulent fluid

March 10, 2007

Understanding the origin and behavior of the magnetic fields of planets and stars is the goal of research being carried out by many teams from all over the world. The VKS collaboration (CEA, CNRS, Ecole normale supérieure ...

Mercury's magnetic field -- nipped in the bud

December 23, 2011

( -- Mercury, the smallest of the eight planets with a diameter of 4900 kilometres and the closest to the Sun, looks more like the Moon than the Earth from the outside. It is the only rocky planet that has a global ...

Researchers simulate neutron stars' 'gigantic' magnetic fields

October 12, 2012

Scientists from the universities of Kiel and Düsseldorf (both Germany) have developed a method to simulate gigantic magnetic fields that normally occur on neutron stars only. The physicists Professor Hartmut Löwen (Heinrich-Heine-Universität ...

Recommended for you

Spacewalk a success for French, US astronauts

March 24, 2017

A French and an American astronaut floated outside the International Space Station Friday on a successful spacewalk to upgrade the orbiting outpost for the arrival of future space crews.

OSIRIS-REx asteroid search tests instruments, science team

March 24, 2017

During an almost two-week search, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission team activated the spacecraft's MapCam imager and scanned part of the surrounding space for elusive Earth-Trojan asteroids—objects that scientists believe may ...

Andromeda's bright X-ray mystery solved by NuSTAR

March 24, 2017

The Milky Way's close neighbor, Andromeda, features a dominant source of high-energy X-ray emission, but its identity was mysterious until now. As reported in a new study, NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.4 / 5 (11) Oct 25, 2012
"Now, we study these astrophysical dynamos by observing them and through computer modeling based on imperfect theory," explains Cary Forest

Imperfect theory? How can this be? These are scientists, it was my impression from these posters like Torbjorn, barakn, and thermo that science knowledge is perfect, and anyone questioning anything at all must be cranks and half-wits. But here, we have this "scientist" claiming EM theory to be "imperfect".
Once again, it is NOT at all a coincidence that electricity MUST be used to create this phenomenon, just as nature does!

3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 25, 2012
Combine this research with this one.

This is the focus of my current research with plasma. Combining plasma with turbulent flows and bingo, all kinds of really cool stuff happens that explains a lot about the universe and at the same time totally disproves the EU theory of how electricity is just there without explanation of where it came from or is generated. Totally ass backwards.
3.3 / 5 (6) Oct 25, 2012
Now that I have had a chance to read more about this experiment I see that the researchers are looking into the generation of magnetic fields from flow. From the plasma experiments that I have completed I personally believe that their vessel design will not allow them to achieve what they are after.

But that is the cool thing about science. You can see who is correct by running experiments. Then even if they have it totally wrong, a lot can still be learned from this experiment.

I also wonder why they did not start with a smaller chamber and get some initial results on the cheap so to speak. It is plasma we are talking about and plasma can be studied at very small scales and then scaled up as needed. I have done this.
1.4 / 5 (10) Oct 25, 2012
This research is going to prove that electrons, ions, and other charged particles don't exist? Alrighty then!
1.9 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2012
Re: "and at the same time totally disproves the EU theory of how electricity is just there without explanation of where it came from or is generated."

@A2G, pseudo-skepticism is the practice of applying skepticism in a biased manner. Authentic, philosophical skepticism is actually agnostic, insofar as it is applied equally to all claims. Your own skepticism is clearly of the pseudo- variety, for you are asking questions which NOBODY could possibly know the answer to. It's absolutely no different than asking what came before the Big Bang.

As for your research, the article starts out with, "Although the extreme conditions specific to astrophysical and geophysical environments cannot all be reproduced in the laboratory ..." I suspect that you are already aware of the EU take on why this must be: Because in a universe where magnetic fields can also result from electrical currents which were generated much further away, larger magnetic fields are possible.
2 / 5 (8) Oct 25, 2012
The EU does not attempt to have a metaphysical discussion about the ultimate source of the universe's charged particles. In fact, it's debatable if such a discussion could actually be called science anyways. Either way, science did not suddenly start the day that somebody came up with the Big Bang Theory.

However, if you want to talk about physical mechanisms for the transfer of electrical power over cosmic plasmas, there is in fact quite a bit which has been said about that. But, you probably won't run into such technical discussions without a little bit of guidance. This may come as a surprise, but learning generally doesn't happen within a hostile, pseudo-skeptical environment.

"He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that." - John Stuart Mill

"The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one's opinion but rather to know it." - Andre Maurois
2.1 / 5 (7) Oct 25, 2012
Also, the notion that a cosmology whose inferences largely derive from observations of laboratory phenomena can be "disproven" is, in a word, quaint. Look at conventional cosmology. 95% of that remains fudge factors, and nobody ever talks about it being "disproven."

The reason is that the cosmology is alive so long as there are people who see validity to its arguments. So, if you really want to make a mission of convincing the EU's advocates that they are wrong, you might start by identifying theoretical problems. You could possibly do it by reading the Essential Guide, which would be a great start for you considering that it will also teach you how cosmic plasmas conduct ...


But, if your intention is simply to criticize without fully understanding that which you are criticizing, then you need to come to grips with the very real possibility that you might be wrong.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 25, 2012
From the lead in and postings over the last while, I thought this might actually be A2G's experiment. I just posted this in another Physorg article about the the Platypus:

"Standard theory needs "dark matter". Logic says the interstellar EM field strength is indicitive of mammoth magnetic structures which would explain stellar/galactic motion without the need for a hypothetical "particle", which itself has only a portion of the criteria required by the theory that is used to justify it's existence. As simply as I can put it:
Gravity plus Magnetism = the observed universe
Gravity plus dark matter = the observed universe

I'll take door #1 Monty"

The electricity in the universe is self propegating.
3.7 / 5 (10) Oct 25, 2012
Rubberman, Nope not my research. I have stable plasma balls rotating at high speeds. You can run them for hours with little change. They also then exhibit the same surface patterns that we observe on the Sun. Really fun stuff. What I got into science for. Experiments that you can use to determine if what you are believing is correct.

That way I don't go off into "imaginary conjecture"

I love the true scientific method. It weeds out those who think they know what they are talking about from those who really do.
1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2012
Good choice rub, behind door #1, a world of knowledge and wisdom awaits you. And behind door #2? It's just a room full of jackasses giving each other reach arounds.
4 / 5 (8) Oct 25, 2012
Sorry cd85 and Hannes. I have set my filter to 1.1 and all I can see is that you made a comment but see it if I choose to. I don't. I have had quite enough of your misinformed ideas on the universe.

I wouldn't trust either of you to even change a circuit breaker.
4 / 5 (6) Oct 25, 2012
To the research in the article, add this info.


You are now getting closer to the truth. Turbulent flow, magnetic confinement, and the research at the link I just provided are all tied together. Working as fast as we can to get our research all wrapped up and get it online. I can't wait to see the EU explain their way out of this one.
4.1 / 5 (7) Oct 25, 2012
One of my biggest beefs with the EU freaks is how they put down all the mainstream with a broad brush stroke and then turn and use the research of these same brilliant scientists to further their BS theory. That is why I put them down so much. If they were not constantly belittling brilliant people with ideas that differ from theirs, I would not treat them as I do.

I am trying to teach them a lesson not only in astro-physics, but also in how to deal with people in a discussion.

So how do you EU guys like it when you are belittled as you do to everyone who does not believe in your theory?

Not so fun is it? And it is not the way to EVER get anyone to see your side. You not only are stupid in regards to science, you are stupid as far as dealing with people to get your point across.

Your approach only drives people away who know of what they speak. That is one of the reasons the EU has not one credible scientist who believe their theory.
1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2012
Looks as if this article is devoid of any comments then, huh pseudo? I was thinking about calling you Mr. pseudo-skeptic, but I really think pseudo-intelligent is more apropos.
4 / 5 (6) Oct 25, 2012
My sons grew up surfing as we lived close to the beach in So-Cal at that time. My sons always would laugh at the guys who would come in with surfboards on their cars and acting like they were really good surfers. Then these "kooks", as the surfers call them would paddle out into the waves and all would be revealed as far as their surfing skills.

Now none of the surfers my sons or their friends knew had any problem with someone new to surfing out there trying to learn. They would even help them with tips and instructions. When they would get upset or laugh or both was when these "posers" came along "pretending" to be surfers.

The "kooks" in this analogy are the EU freaks. Nothing wrong with wanting to learn stuff and ask questions. It is when you are a "poser" that the real experts take offense.
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 25, 2012
Cantdrive - do you realize the irony of your comments about science believing that its knowledge is perfect when you are absolutely positive that your knowledge is perfect.

Any respectable scientist will admit where their knowledge ends and uncertainty begins.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 25, 2012
"Good choice rub, behind door #1, a world of knowledge and wisdom awaits you."
Thanks, I like to think it awaits everybody. Sorry Barakn, I didn't mean any disrespect to the standard theory, I see it's success and am confident in it's validity, to the point where observation no longer fits it, at this point it simply needs to be inserted into a theory which allows it to continue to succeed as it has, but the rest of the theory can explain the observations that it can't. Assuming gravity is the only force at work regarding galactic and stellar motion amounts to scientific naivity. Assuming the existence of undetectable gravity generating matter is like blaming ghosts for moving your clothes hanging on the clothesline. We have mapped the earths magnetic field, we know it connects to the suns, the suns magnetic field is how many orders of magnitude stronger? If we could map it I guarantee it connects with several other stars. And that the lines couple with other lines...structure.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2012
Cantdrive - do you realize the irony of your comments about science believing that its knowledge is perfect when you are absolutely positive that your knowledge is perfect.

Any respectable scientist will admit where their knowledge ends and uncertainty begins.

Couldn't have said it better. I don't mind being told I'm a crank if the person doing the telling let's me in on why. Logic trumps belief as far as I'm concerned.
not rated yet Oct 27, 2012
I wonder if you could use this and other methods to create a magnetic field around a space ship or amplify the one on mars or recreate it ?
not rated yet Oct 30, 2012
I wonder if you could use this and other methods to create a magnetic field around a space ship or amplify the one on mars or recreate it ?

Creating a planetary magnetic field.....not anytime soon, but around a ship, for sure.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.