Physicists make first-ever direct observation of collisional plasmoid instability during magnetic reconnection

January 9, 2017 by Raphael Rosen, Princeton University
PPPL physicist Hantao Ji in front of the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment. Credit: Elle Starkman

Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have for the first time directly observed a phenomenon that had previously only been hypothesized to exist. The phenomenon, plasmoid instabilities that occur during collisional magnetic reconnection, had until this year only been observed indirectly using remote-sensing technology. In a paper published in the August 2016 issue of Physical Review Letters, PPPL physicists report that they created the phenomenon in a laboratory setting where they could measure it directly and confirm its existence on the electron scale, which describes the range of motion of electrons and how quickly they move. This research was funded both by the DOE's Office of Science and NASA's Heliophysics Division.

Plasmoid instabilities create magnetic bubbles within plasma, superhot gas whose atoms have separated into electrons and atomic nuclei. The magnetic bubbles then cause fast magnetic reconnection, when a plasma's break apart and join together again, releasing large amounts of energy. Before now, physicists at NASA and other institutions had only been able to directly confirm the existence of these instabilities in collisionless plasmas, like those surrounding Earth in the upper atmosphere, in which the plasma particles do not collide often.

Scientists had not been able to confirm the existence of plasmoid instabilities in collisional plasmas, in which the particles frequently collide, because such plasmas occur in , far from Earth. Collisional plasmas like those on the surfaces of stars are so far away that scientists have difficulty measuring them directly. But physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere had predicted their existence years ago.

Scientists have obtained, however, indirect evidence of plasmoid instabilities in outer space. Using telescopes and spectroscopes, as well as fusion facilities like PPPL's former flagship device known as the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), which has since been upgraded, scientists took photographs and analyzed light that hinted at the existence of the instabilities. But without direct measurements, they were unable to confirm that the instabilities existed.

"These findings are significant because data gathered in past experiments involving collisionless plasma does not apply to the large, collisional plasmas found throughout space," said Hantao Ji, a professor at Princeton University's Department of Astrophysical Sciences, distinguished fellow at PPPL, and co-author of the paper. "Scientists have long had difficulty studying these plasmas because it's hard to create the necessary conditions on Earth, and we can't just stick probes directly into stars. Now we have a glimpse into their workings."

During the research, lead author and graduate student Jonathan Jara-Almonte and the team used a PPPL device known as the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX). Unlike in past experiments, Jara-Almonte and his team used a plasma made out of argon atoms, rather than hydrogen, deuterium or helium. Using argon, they found, allowed them to produce conditions for collisional reconnection within the plasma more easily.

Along with confirming the existence of plasmoid instabilities in collisional plasmas undergoing reconnection, the research showed that instabilities can arise even when a plasma does not conduct electricity well, a condition known as having a low Lundquist number that scientists thought would hinder plasmoid development. This was a surprising finding, since scientists have long predicted that plasmoids would form only when a plasma conducts electricity well.

"The bigger picture is that these results raise some questions about plasmoid instability theory that haven't been answered yet," said Jara-Almonte. "The results raise questions about what is really happening in other systems."

The MRX experiment also confirmed that plasmoids speed up the rate at which reconnection occurs—the first time the effect has been observed in a collisional environment. Understanding how fast reconnection occurs is important because it can affect Earth in dramatic ways. When reconnection happens on the surface of the sun, enormous blobs of shoot into space and can collide with Earth's magnetic field, creating geomagnetic storms that threaten communication satellites and electricity grids.

Explore further: Researchers propose an explanation for the mysterious onset of a universal process

Related Stories

Steering a fusion plasma toward stability

October 27, 2016

Plasmas in fusion-energy producing devices are gases heated to millions of degrees that can carry millions of amperes of current. These superhot plasmas must be kept away from material surfaces of the vacuum vessel that contains ...

Recommended for you

Team takes a deep look at memristors

January 19, 2018

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

January 19, 2018

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

Artificial agent designs quantum experiments

January 19, 2018

On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jan 09, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 09, 2017
Sorry I'm late;

"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2017
This is important in another way: it indicates why Tokamaks don't work. It was foreshadowed by Bussard's observations regarding the gyromagnetic ratio. And it's why we should be making polywells, not Tokamaks.

But try telling that to the ITER bureaucracy.
4.5 / 5 (10) Jan 10, 2017
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén

And has been shown to be wrong, by many observations, both in the lab, and in astrophysical settings.

As he himself said, in 1976:
"In case the magnetic field varies with time, the geometry near neutral points may change in such a way that it is legitimate to speak of a 'field line reconnection.' We cannot exclude the possibility that some of the field-line reconnection formalism may be applicable, but this remains to be proved."

And has, indeed, been proved. We know a lot more, 40 years on, than he did back then. Quite why EU people treat him like some kind of God, whose every pronouncement has to be taken as the literal truth, is beyond me. I suspect, were he miraculously resurrected, that he would wonder the same.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2017
@Da Schneib I understood that a meeting/lecture last year that plans were going ahead for the polywell reactors for 2030's. It seems to me that polywell system is more complex than Tokomak (layman's view that is). Must admit I don't know enough about either to really understand but I do remember that someone mentioned elsewhere that Bussard's experiments suffered burn outs etc. One would hope that today those problems have been sorted.
Jan 10, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Jan 10, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2017
How about you look in the mirror and discover that Serbs are a piece of shite.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2017
Quite why EU people treat him like some kind of God, whose every pronouncement has to be taken as the literal truth, is beyond me. I suspect, were he miraculously resurrected, that he would wonder the same.

Quit feeding the trolls and DO something about it.

August 17 – August 20
Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West
860 N Riverview, Mesa, Arizona 85201

Come hell or high water I am going to find out who cantthink is this year. He's bragged to someone or can be drawn out and with enough money they'll talk. Worked last year when I figured out Chris Reeve is "Hannes Alfven".

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.