Bhagirath Ghimire conducting plasma research
Research Scientist Bhagirath Ghimire conducts plasma research in the Gabe Xu lab at the Johnson Research Center on the UAH campus.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Two researchers in the College of Engineering at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) have won a grant totaling $457,963 to study 3D magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection refers to the breaking and reconnecting of oppositely directed magnetic field lines, a phenomenon at the heart of many solar events, such as solar flares, where magnetic field energy is converted to kinetic and thermal energy. The project seeks to examine this celestial process in the laboratory, which could ultimately lead to significant advances in space propulsion.

The award is part of a $9.96 million Department of Energy (DOE) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) sponsored by the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to support one- to three-year projects in plasma science and engineering at universities, private industry facilities and national laboratories across the nation.

Michael Mercier | UAH

“Basic and low-temperature plasma science is an important area with many scientific and technological impacts,” says Jean Paul Allain, DOE Associate Director of Science for Fusion Energy Sciences. “The research funded under this FOA will enable the U.S research community to address many fundamental and technological science challenges helping to ensure continued American leadership in this critical field.”

Dr. Gabe Xu, an associate professor, and Dr. Jason Cassibry, a full professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, won the award with a proposal titled Laboratory Study of 3D Torsional Magnetic Reconnection to Understand Energy Conversion and Ion Acceleration. The goal of the collaborative project is to study 3D torsional magnetic reconnection (TMR) in the laboratory through the use of plasma jets accelerated along open magnetic field lines.

Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental process where magnetic energy is converted into heat, kinetic energy and fast particle energy. Magnetic field lines converge, separate and join together again, accelerating a plasma to high velocities that could be applied to a thruster for advanced space travel. The magnetic reconnection thruster concept can, in theory, generate exhausts with velocities of hundreds of kilometers per second, well beyond the capability of existing thrusters.

Michael Mercier | UAH

“Being a propulsion person, the fact that magnetic reconnection could be the next step in space propulsion got me interested in this research,” Dr. Xu says. “Studying the fundamental physics and behaviors of 3D TMR, and in particular how energy is transferred from the magnetic field to the plasma in order to accelerate the plasma jet, is important. The energy conversion to produce high velocity plasma jets has applications to space propulsion.”

The UAH researchers will collaborate with SpaceWave LLC to develop a TMR experiment consisting of a coaxial plasma gun and an external null field coil at UAH. The project will run through July 2026.

“This research will advance basic plasma science and engineering by demonstrating a first major experiment to study 3D TMR in the laboratory,” Dr. Xu explains. “To generate 3D TMR requires two sets of magnetic fields. We need a high-current plasma jet to generate a strong azimuthal magnetic field, which is where the plasma gun comes in. The plasma gun, which kind of looks like a railgun, can generate a plasma jet with high currents and azimuthal magnetic field. The experimental effort will be supported by computational modeling. Magnetic reconnection can produce extremely high-velocity plasmas, which would translate into high-efficiency propulsion.”