This physicist’s scientific curiosity goes all the way back to seventh grade

January 14, 2015
Plasma physicist Nathanlel Hicks

Nathaniel Hicks reviews his progress on a computer model of plasma confinement, a research opportunity he was able to exploit through a $10,000 Innovate grant from UAA. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Alaska may have 50 years of oil production left, but most of us realize we need a new source of energy for warmth and to keep our toys and tools running. It may come as a surprise to learn a local plasma physicist is tinkering at the edges of just that prospect.

Nathaniel Hicks arrived at UAA just over a year ago, following post-doctoral research in Seattle and Germany. He worked on devices like the tokamak, which uses magnetic fields to confine plasma. We all know solids, liquids and gases. Plasmas are the fourth and most abundant state of matter in the universe, created by heating a gas or subjecting it to a strong electromagnetic field.

Think of the sun, the stars, or even our northern aurora. These are plasmas made visible through the light they emit. But we can find plasmas much closer to home. Take a drive along Spenard Road, and any neon sign you see contains plasma. Surely you’ve heard of plasma TVs?

But the big bang in plasma is the promise that it could one day generate energy through nuclear fusion. Just as in nuclear fission—which is the splitting of heavy nuclei—when you fuse light nuclei, you liberate energy.

This is good news, Hicks says, because nuclear fusion is virtually risk free. The fuel source comes from seawater and there are no harmful emissions. There’s no long-lived radioactive waste and no risk of catastrophic events associated with fission reactors. If something goes wrong in a fusion reactor, well, the whole process just fizzles.

The world is looking hard at tokamaks. In fact the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and India are working together in what Hicks says is arguably the world’s largest science experiment. The hope is to create the first sustained, power-producing fusion plasma and set the stage for fusion reactors on the grid in decades to come.

So where does Hicks fit in? Last year he won a UAA Innovate award of $10,000 to try computer modeling a new approach to plasma confinement that doesn’t use a magnetic field. He got encouraging results, so his next step is building a tabletop version and running experiments.

Nuclear fusion has developed something of a reputation for always being just over the horizon. Since the 1950s enthusiasts have been claiming it’s 20 years away, and that was 60 years ago. On the plus side, the progress curve on nuclear fusion surpasses another technical phenomenon we’ve all benefited from—the computing revolution.

“If you look at the nuclear fusion performance achieved over the years, it has increased faster than that of computer processors,” Hicks says. “People and publicists have been too optimistic at times, and research funding has been inconsistent, but fusion has nonetheless made amazing, steady progress.”

If it seems strange to find Hicks here in Anchorage instead of France with the seven-nation science experiment, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like to focus on experiments that are compact enough for me and my students to tinker with, and I choose research topics that have to do with putting fusion energy on a quicker development path than that of the mainstream tokamak,” he said. “At UAA, I knew I could set up a lab of the size that suits my needs, and have the autonomy and support to pursue my research goals.”

Hicks, who earned his doctorate in physics at UCLA in 2006, has been chasing this dream a long time. When I asked if he could remember the moment it all sparked for him, maybe in graduate school, he laughed.

“I was in seventh grade,” Hicks said. “That was when Exxon Valdez happened. And it was a little after Chernobyl. So the focus was on different energy sources and the risks they might present. This idea that nuclear fusion could be safe and available to all countries of the world, that was really appealing to an idealistic kid.”

Hicks came to UAA along with his wife, Erin, an astronomy professor. They are making Alaska their permanent and professional home.

Despite being busy with research and teaching physics, Hicks anticipates developing some community science outreach. “I like to share science with the public, whether it’s kids or adults. People have very interesting perspectives about plasmas and fusion, and I come away really inspired by the experience.”

Who knows, maybe a seventh grader at Clark or Begich middle schools is a budding plasma physicist, just like Hicks back in 1989.


A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.

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