Emilee Klier
Research Scientist Bhagirath Ghimire conducts plasma research in the Plasma and Electrodynamics Research Lab directed by Dr. Gabe Xu in Johnson Research Center.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Plasma Powerhouse

The business community can help propel to fruition a statewide endeavor backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to make Huntsville the hub of an Alabama plasma physics technology powerhouse that spans the Southeast.

The effort is a springboard to propel cutting-edge university plasma physics research and technologies into practical business applications in agriculture, manufacturing, propulsion, space science, space weather prediction and more. It nurtures and educates the required high-technology workforce to stimulate thousands of high-paying jobs.

Called Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) and led by The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), the enterprise is fueled by a five-year $20 million grant from the NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The current grant consecutively follows a previous $20 million NSF award.

“The critical next step, and one where we are looking to Huntsville and Alabama entrepreneurs and business leaders for help and engagement, is taking plasma technology into the industrial and commercial environment,” says Dr. Gary Zank, the principal investigator for the FTPP grant.

The FTPP consortium consists of UAH, The University of Alabama, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Auburn University, Tuskegee University, the University of South Alabama, Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Oakwood University and CFD Research Corp.

If FTPP succeeds over the coming five years, the NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines program is gearing up to vault Huntsville and Alabama into place as the Southeastern hub for cutting-edge plasma technology, backed by a Type 2 grant of $160 million.

Reliant on plasma

“Modern society relies on plasma-based technologies such as efficient lighting, new materials, welding, internal combustion and jet engines, medical implants and water purification,” says Dr. Zank, who is the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science at UAH and also the director of the university’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR).

“Plasmas enable microelectronics fabrication through the etching and deposition of materials; compact particle accelerators for science, medicine and industry; forecasting of extreme space weather events; and agricultural and medical advances,” says Dr. Zank, a world-renowned astrophysicist and a full member of the National Academy of Sciences.

“All of these industries and more become accessible to Huntsville and Alabama, provided that a new class of business people and entrepreneurs is created with the vision to translate plasma science and engineering (PSE) research into new and innovative technologies, and that they join together with a workforce educated in basic PSE,” he says.

Get involved now

Companies can get directly involved in ground-floor plasma technology opportunities by reaching out to Dr. Zank and FTPP through the website and by participating in the FTPP student internship program.

“They can learn what potential technologies enabled by PSE might be useful to them, and how,” Dr. Zank says.

Right now, businesses can help develop the plasma workforce of the future in Alabama by participating in FTPP’s student intern program, in which FTPP pays the students to work in companies that are or might become engaged in PSE processes.

“One of our most important efforts is to build a broad group of graduate students working in the various areas of PSE, and we always have a ready supply of eager young minds for these internships,” Dr. Zank says. “It’s a resource that business people need to know about and utilize.”

To educate a future workforce, FTPP conducts kindergarten through 12th grade outreach programs and has multiple summer programs that reach out to STEM undergraduate students across the Southeast. It is developing an Alabama and Southeastern plasma certification program that will introduce interested college undergraduates to graduate-level PSE.

What is plasma?

Plasma is a state of matter comprising a mixture of charged particles and sometimes chemically active species.

“Imagine that there is a kind of gas that helps you grow large gem-quality diamonds, allows etching a single atomic layer on a computer chip to enable ever-smaller and more capable devices, sterilizes eggs and seeds without harm to either consumers or the environment, or helps create useful new materials from unused chicken products such as feathers and egg shells,” says Dr. Zank. “Plasma can do all these things and many more, limited only by imagination.”

FTPP has identified several possibilities that have the potential for economic impact:

  • Plasma-aided synthesis of novel materials including interfacial engineering in quantum materials;
  • Plasma reprocessing of waste materials to produce polymer composites for various applications;
  • Plasma treatment of soft and biomatter, with one focus being medical materials used in catheters, implants and grafts, and in developing new methods of decontamination and sterilization that ensure complete removal of bacteria, pyrogens and attached proteins without drug-resistance issues;
  • Food safety and sterilization to increase quality and shelf-life of food using low temperature plasma;
  • Space weather forecasting and nowcasting to prevent damage to critical infrastructure in space and on Earth.

“Each of these has significant potential economic impact,” says Dr. Zank. “But more importantly, they illustrate how using FTPP to grow Huntsville and Alabama as a Southeastern hub of PSE opens up an entirely new high-tech field in a range of emergent technologies.”

Right now, FTPP has numerous projects in the five fields identified that “have technologies that show considerable promise for commercialization, and we would love to talk to business people about them,” Dr. Zank says.

“At this point, it’s not necessarily about investment so much as anticipating the promise of what could be done and finding out from the business community the directions that they might like us to explore,” he says.

“We would like to open a two-way educational dialogue with business leaders about opportunities and the future, since commercial and business partners are an essential element of our success.”

The dialog is essential so that researchers can interface with business, entrepreneurs and investors to exploit the possibilities inherent in plasma processes. Business leaders can also elect to serve on an FTPP advisory board.

Currently, FTPP’s Industry Liaison Board is seeking members.

“It’s vital that we have the guidance of experienced entrepreneurs in identifying the commercial potential for technologies and products, guidance in acquiring development funding, and then of course guidance on business partnerships and venture capital,” Dr. Zank says.

“So far, we have been successful in marrying scientific research and technology development, but taking it to the commercial step is still in its infancy,” he says. “We would love to identify some interesting Huntsville and Alabama business people with a strong entrepreneurial streak and an interest in serving on the Industry Liaison Board.”

In the pipeline now

Two leading plasma technologies now in the commercialization pipeline are a small-diameter artificial vascular graft for dialysis access and an accurate space weather forecasting system.

The artificial vascular graft is being developed in partnership with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

“We anticipate that a medical device manufacturer will license the rights to the device from The University of Alabama at Birmingham and manufacture and sell it in Alabama and nationwide,” says Dr. Zank. “The graft is likely to help COVID-19 patients who are reporting kidney infections and cases of blood clots, and may result in sales of $50 million a year.”

Based at CSPAR at UAH, the space weather forecasting effort already has received NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) supporting grants.

“We are at point where we think a beta system can reasonably be constructed,” Dr. Zank says. “These two examples give a sense of the diverse applications that plasma enables.”

What success looks like

Dr. Zank says FTPP will be successful if it:

  • establishes Alabama as a national and international hub for plasma science and engineering and for recognition as a leader in the field of PSE;
  • builds a durable PSE infrastructure and statewide consortium across the Alabama research universities, including hiring new faculty and development of graduate programs, along with the necessary infrastructure;
  • builds a diverse Science, Technology, Engineering and Math pipeline into PSE through the Alabama institutions, summer programs, outreach and certification programs;
  • establishes a PSE partnership between academics, the commercial sector and the state that is coordinated by the FTPP Industry Liaison Board.

“This will lay the groundwork for sustainability of the program in Alabama and across the Southeast, and thereby position us to capture the NSF Regional Innovation Engines grant for $160 million,” he says. “Engagement by the business and industrial community will be critical to achieving this vision.”