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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications Executive Summary Plasma science is the study of the ionized states of matter. Most of the observable matter in the universe is in the plasma state. Plasma science includes plasma physics but aims to describe a much wider class of phenomena in which, for example, atomic and molecular excitation and ionization processes and chemical reactions can play significant roles. The intellectual challenge in plasma science is to develop principles for understanding the complex macroscopic behavior of plasmas, given the known principles that govern their microscopic behavior. Plasmas of interest range over tens of orders of magnitude in density and temperature—from the tenuous plasmas of interstellar space to the ultradense plasmas created in inertial confinement fusion, and from the cool, chemical plasmas used in the plasma processing of semiconductors to the thermonuclear plasmas created in magnetic confinement fusion devices. A healthy plasma science enterprise can be expected to make many important contributions to our society for the foreseeable future. The purpose of this report is to provide guidance regarding the ways in which plasma science can contribute to society and to recommend actions that will optimize these contributions. FINDINGS Plasma science impacts daily life in many significant ways. It plays an important role in plasma processing, the sterilization of medical products, lighting, and lasers. Plasma science is central to the development of fusion as an
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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications energy source, high-power radiation sources, intense particle beams, and many aspects of space science. Plasma science is a fundamental scientific discipline, similar, for example, to condensed-matter physics. This fact is apparent when one considers the commonality of the intellectual problems in plasma science that span the wide range of applications to science and technology. Despite its fundamental character, plasma science is frequently viewed in the academic community as an interdisciplinary enterprise focused on a large collection of applications. Experiment, theory, and computation are all critical components of modern plasma science. While the applications of plasma science have been supported by the federal government, no agency has assumed responsibility for basic research in plasma science. In general, there is a lack of coordination of plasma science research among the federal agencies. As the development of plasma applications has progressed, small-scale research efforts have declined, particularly in the area of basic plasma experiments. This decline has led to a significant backlog of important scientific opportunities. This core activity in fundamental plasma science, carried out by small groups and funded by principal-investigator grants, is dangerously small, considering its importance to the national effort in fusion energy and other applied programs. Plasma scientists in academic institutions are less likely to be in tenure-track positions than are other physicists, and courses in plasma science are currently unavailable at many educational institutions. CONCLUSIONS Plasma science can have a significant impact on many disciplines and technologies, including those directly linked to industrial growth. To properly pursue the potential offered by plasma science, the United States must create and maintain a coherent and coordinated program of research and technological development in plasma science. Recognition as a distinct discipline in educational and research institutions will be crucial to the healthy development of plasma science. There is no effective structure in place to develop the basic science that underlies the many applications of plasmas, and if the present trend continues, plasma science education and basic plasma science research are likely to decrease both in quality and quantity. If nothing is done by the federal government, it is likely that research in basic plasma science will cease to exist, and progress in the applications that depend on it will eventually halt. The future health of plasma science, and hence its ability to contribute to the nation's technological development, hinges on the revitalization of basic plasma science and, in particular, on the revitalization of small-scale basic plas-
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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications ma experiments. With regard to theory and modeling, although the current programs have been successful, there is a need for individual-investigator-led research on questions fundamental to basic plasma science. Coordination of research efforts is vital, to make the most effective use of resources by maintaining complementary programs and to ensure that all critical problems are addressed. Because of the commonality underlying all areas of plasma science, renewed emphasis on basic plasma science will benefit all areas. Therefore, it is appropriate that redistribution of funding to support basic plasma science come from all areas of plasma science. RECOMMENDATIONS To reinvigorate basic plasma science in the most efficient and cost-effective way, emphasis should be placed on university-scale research programs. To ensure the continued availability of the basic knowledge that is needed for the development of applications, the National Science Foundation should provide increased support for basic plasma science. To aid the development of fusion and other energy-related programs now supported by the Department of Energy, the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, with the cooperation of the Office of Fusion Energy, should provide increased support for basic experimental plasma science. Such emphasis would leverage the Doe's present investment in plasma science and would strengthen investigations in other energy-related areas of plasma science and technology. Approximately $15 million per year for university-scale experiments should be provided, and continued in future years, to effectively redress the current lack of support for fundamental plasma science, which is a central concern of this report. Furthermore, individual-investigator and small-group research, including theory and modeling as well as experiments, needs special help, and small amounts of funding could be life-saving. Funding for these activities should come from existing programs that depend on plasma science. A reassessment of the relative allocation of funds between larger, focused research programs and individual-investigator and small-group activities should be undertaken. The agencies supporting plasma science should cooperate to coordinate plasma science policy and funding. Members of the plasma community in industry and academe should work aggressively for tenure-track recognition of plasma science as an academic discipline, and work with university faculty and administrators to provide courses in basic plasma science at the senior undergraduate level. Additional recommendations regarding specific areas of plasma science are made in the main text of the report.
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