The fourth state of matter

by Catalina Myers  |   

In the Natural Sciences Building in a windowless room lies a machine named the Multipole Plasma Trap, a stainless steel vacuum chamber designed by Nathaniel Hicks, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UAA’s Department of Physics. He established the UAA Plasma Physics Laboratory in 2013. 

Since then, Hicks’ lab has grown from a few undergraduate researchers to a 10-person student team, boasting eight alumni, all from various disciplines ranging from engineering to biological science.  

Nathaniel Hicks, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UAA's Department of Physics, pictured (left) with alumnus Brendan Stassel in UAA's Plasma Physics Laboratory, which Hicks established in 2013. (Photo courtesy Nathaniel Hicks)

“It was really interesting for me to come here because of the possibility to involve students in the research and to create experiences they can get excited about,” said Hicks. His early fascination with the fourth state of matter inspired him to pursue physics focusing his career on plasma. “Plasma is not just a physics thing, plasma and the science of plasma is kind of an umbrella that spans many disciplines. I am really happy to bring in people from the medical and biological sciences. Maybe they’ll go on and study more — a lot of the students I have worked with do and I am very proud of their efforts.”

According to Hicks, plasma is the most common state of matter and more than 99% of material in the universe from stars to galaxies exist in the plasma state. Here on planet Earth, plasma occurs mostly in natural phenomena like lightning bolts or the aurora because of the extreme heat needed for it to exist.

“I wanted to study a particular way of trapping plasma,” said Hicks, which after years of researching, is how the Multipole Plasma Trap came to exist. The vacuum chamber traps plasma in a “magnetic or electrical bottle” and allows him and his undergraduate research students the ability to study the various phenomena that go on in the plasma state. “The idea is to just have something very easy to do that can be done in a basic laboratory with not a lot of infrastructure required.”  

Brendan Stassel, B.S. Engineering ’18, minor in physics started working in Hicks’ lab in his junior year researching propulsion, a plasma phenomenon occurring inside a magnetic field of a specific shape and strength. Besides the excitement of undergraduate research, Stassel said the experience not only prepared him for work in a laboratory but success in graduate school and beyond.

“I don’t think any of that would have happened if I hadn’t met Dr. Hicks and got into his Plasma Lab,” Stassel said. His work in Hicks’ lab landed him an internship with the Alaska Space Grant, led to a NASA internship in Huntsville, Alabama, which led to his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

Hicks with alumnus Amanda Bowman, a B.S. Mechanical Engineering '17 grad who worked on many projects in the UAA Plasma Physics Laboratory. (Photo courtesy, Nathaniel Hicks)

Amanda Bowman, B.S Mechanical Engineering ’17, also joined Dr. Hicks her junior year, and over two and a half years worked on many of the lab’s projects from the Multipole Plasma Trap to the Planeterrella.  

“Because of my experience, I was able to get two research internships with NASA,” said Bowman, who like Stassel, said Hicks’ lab provided a springboard for opportunities and growth. “Having research going into grad school is huge as well as knowing how to work in a lab.”

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