star power — When you’re on the beamline, the sky’s the limit.

Tom Hallman

With a rare tool called an ion beamline, Chad Sosolik will make star stuff in his lab. He and other scientists will strip atoms of their electrons, producing highly charged ions that in nature are made only in the bellies of stars.

“It’s really a puddle of stellar matter,” Sosolik says. “In an iron atom, for instance, this produces a highly charged ion at an extremely high temperature—on the order of ten million Kelvin—hot as 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. So this is a rare opportunity for us to observe them and actually use them in ways that weren’t possible before.”

A single highly charged ion can deliver more energy with precision than the biggest lasers, Sosolik says, and is easier to use. “What can you do with it? We don’t know. Pretty much anything we try is going to be new.” The beamline, which will be fully operational this summer, will be the third Electron Beam Ion Trap (EBIT) beamline of its kind in the U.S. and one of only seventeen in the world. Thirteen universities and research labs are working with Sosolik to establish collaborative arrangements that will attract new research to Clemson.

Sosolik sees an immediate impact in research on new industrial materials, such as radiation-hardened electronics destined for the space. “We can simulate solar wind on the ground and see if the material is impervious to radiation,” he says. “In space-bound equipment, with your electronics packed into a very small area, you could lose it all with one ion impact.”

A whiteboard sketch by Chad Sosolik. 

An Electron Beam Ion Trap, or EBIT, 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 basic science in astrophysics and the properties that govern the quantum mechanical tunneling of electrons.

 

Biomedical researchers, for example, could use the tool to send charged ions down a fiber-optic cable to treat tumors. Physicists could use the EBIT to measure what happens to materials inside a fusion reactor, something that cannot be done in existing fusion facilities.

The first EBITs for creating highly charged ions emerged more than twenty years ago, but their superconducting magnets expended liquid helium for cooling and cost thousands of dollars a day to operate. A breakthrough in cooling technology has made it possible to recirculate the helium and cut costs.

Established scientists won’t be the only users. Sosolik will also make “beam time” available to undergraduates studying atomic and nuclear physics, electronic materials, and fusion energy. Sosolik himself will use the EBIT to simulate the evolution of dust and ice in the cosmos. He plans to reproduce X-ray emissions from comets by making ice targets in the lab and dropping them in front of the ion beam.

“You can’t exactly make a comet in the lab,” he says, “but that’s essentially what’s going on.”

Chad Sosolik is associate professor of physics. His collaborators include Sean Brittain, Rod Harrell, Jian Luo, and Pete McNulty. The National Science Foundation provided the funding.

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