NRC Committee Releases Decadal Survey on Plasma Science

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Publication date: 
5 June 2007

"There is a spectacular future awaiting the United States in plasma science and engineering. But the national framework for plasma science must grow and adapt to new opportunities. Only then will the tremendous potential be realized." So argues a new report just released by the National Academies Plasma 2010 Committee, whose principal conclusion calls for a unified approach to the conduct and support of federal plasma science research in the United States.

"Plasma Science, Advancing Knowledge in the National Interest," is the third report in a series of six decadal studies being conducted by the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council's Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences. Completed reports in this series reviewed elementary particle physics (see and atomic, molecular, and optical science (see A report on condensed matter and material physics is in progress (see .) Information on the series of the reports is available at

As is true for the previous reports in this series, the plasma science report gives readers an appreciation for, and an understanding of, the importance of this research. The 18-member committee was co-chaired by Steven C. Cowley of the University of California at Los Angeles and John Peoples, Jr. of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The committee included experts both in and outside of plasma science, the report explaining: "The committee was asked to assess the progress in plasma research, identify the most compelling new scientific opportunities, evaluate the prospects for broader application of plasmas, and offer guidance to the government and the research community aimed at realizing these opportunities." Support was provided by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and NASA. The last decadal plasma science survey was conducted in 1995.

The committee convened in 2004. In addition to a series of meetings, site visits, and an electronic questionnaire, the committee sponsored "town hall meetings" at conferences of the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and AVS: Science & Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing (all AIP Member Societies.)

At the outset, the committee explained its approach: "Decadal surveys each face a strong urge to fall into a discussion about the need for funding or the supply side of the workforce equation; this committee worked hard to be forward-looking in its analysis of what plasma research can do for this nation. In light of the ongoing national discussion of U.S. competitiveness, the committee recognized the value of a prospective 'international benchmarking' exercise that would compare the U.S. plasma science and engineering enterprise to those in other parts of the world. However, this committee had neither the time nor resources to undertake such a task."

The report outlines the importance of the field to economic security and prosperity (illustrated by a photo of 21 examples of "plasmas in the kitchen" as well as biotechnology and health care applications), energy and the environment, and national security. ITER and the National Ignition Facility, which are both under construction, are described. Later the report outlines four "significant research challenges that the current organization of [the] federal plasma science portfolio is not equipped to exploit optimally," including "fundamental low-temperature plasma science," "discovery driven high energy density plasma science," "intermediate-scale plasma science," and "cross-cutting research."

The committee concluded that the current federal stewardship structure does not fully integrate plasma science research. While recognizing that there are "substantial challenges and risks" in its major recommendation, the committee concluded that a new approach is required. The following is the committee's principal recommendation, as well as two paragraphs that more fully describe its thinking:

"Recommendation: To fully realize the opportunities in plasma research, a unified approach is required. Therefore, the Department of Energy's Office of Science should reorient its research programs to incorporate magnetic and inertial fusion energy sciences, basic plasma science, non-mission-driven high-energy density plasma science, and low-temperature plasma science and engineering.

"The new stewardship role for the Office of Science would expand well beyond the present mission and purview of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences. It would include a broader portfolio of plasma science as well as the research OFES presently supports. Included in this portfolio would be two new thrusts: (1) a non-mission-driven high energy density plasma science program; and (2) a low-temperature plasma science and engineering program. These changes would be more evolutionary than revolutionary, starting modestly and growing with the expanding science opportunities. The committee recognizes that these new programs would require new resources and perhaps a new organizational structure within the Office of Science. However, the scale and extent should evolve naturally from community proposals and initiatives through a strategic planning process such as outlined below and the usual budget and operation planning within the government.
"The committee's intention is not to replace or duplicate the plasma science programs in other agencies. Rather, it would create a science-based focal point for federal efforts in plasma-based research. Space and astrophysical plasma research would remain within the space and astrophysical research programs in NASA and NSF. The NSF-DOE partnership in basic plasma science would continue. High-energy density programs in plasma accelerators would remain in the DOE Office of High Energy Physics. Inertial confinement fusion research enabling the stockpile stewardship mission of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration would remain with NNSA. With a renewed and expanded research focus the Office of Science would also be naturally positioned to accept a lead scientific role in interagency efforts to exploit high energy density physics. Finally, current programs at NIST and NSF wrestling with engineering applications of low-temperature plasma science would continue. In fact, they would be substantially enhanced by the inception of the new DOE plasma science programs that could provide directed scientific inquiry on key issues as well as coordination and communication of the most compelling breakthroughs in the basic research."

The 241-page prepublication copy and the 45-page summary are available at:

Richard M. Jones