Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sloan Scholar Alemayehu Bogale: revolutionizing our understanding of plasma physics


Alem Bogale, left, presents research from his
undergraduate studies at University of Chicago.
Alemayehu Bogale is a first-generation Ethiopian-American who was born and raised in Chicago, and is now an engineering physics PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego. He’s also a Sloan Scholar, a fellowship awarded to 12 incoming UC San Diego graduate students each year, meant to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists of outstanding promise. Sloan Scholars receive a $40,000 award to be used over four years.

Bogale works in Professor Farhat Beg’s High Energy Density Physics lab, where he researches plasma physics and works on particle-in-cell simulations that influence the design of experiments on high-powered laser facilities around the country. His goal is to revolutionize our understanding of plasma physics through the concerted use of numerical methods, computer simulations, and laboratory experiments.

In the following Q&A, he shares how he become interested in engineering physics, what his research goals are, and how he takes his coding frustrations out on the punching bag.


Q: What is plasma physics and where does your research fit in?

 Plasma physics isn't covered that much in mainstream science and is often confused with the plasma found in our blood. It is the study of the 4th state of matter, which occurs when atoms found in a gaseous state are heated up to the point where the electrons break off from the rest of the atom, leaving positive ions and negative electrons. The particles are now highly influenced by electromagnetic forces as well as thermal properties. The beauty of plasma physics is just how broad the study of it is. To the surprise of most, 99% of the universe's matter is in this plasma state (not counting dark matter). If we genuinely seek to understand the origins and laws that govern the universe, we must understand plasma. My research is centered around the higher end of this spectrum at pressures above 1 MBar. For context, you would achieve this if you heated 1mg of Hydrogen to 10,000,000 C and confined it to about a cubic centimeter. At scales like these, we have to throw away the textbook because matter behaves differently than the more familiar solid, liquid, gaseous, and even lower-end plasma states. Until recently, we haven't been able to study this in the lab, but with the emergence of high-powered lasers, we can now produce conditions comparable to astronomical environments such as planetary interiors, neutrons star, accretion disks, and supernovas. While this is very exciting when working in these extreme conditions, we have to consider radiative, relativistic, and quantum mechanical effects that make it challenging to process. High energy density physics is a very new field and is growing every day.

Q: What are some applications of your research?

 Plasma physics has many applications such as semiconductor fabrication, more efficient particle accelerators, national defense, and even water purification. However, I believe the most exciting and crucial application is controlled fusion energy. At the same time, this has mostly been a thing of science fiction and Hollywood, either being used as a fuel source for intergalactic travel or merged into the weaponized suit of armor of an Avenger. This is becoming less of a fantasy and more of a reality every day as scientists worldwide attack this problem from various angles. The impact of sustained use of non-renewable resources on the environment and public health has become painfully obvious. While renewable but intermittent resources such as solar, wind, and hydro have decreased in cost and increased in power generation, additional costs associated with electricity storage make it financially impractical. The more extensive land use also makes it a difficult choice for densely populated areas. Fusion offers a power-dense resource that is geographically and seasonally independent. Furthermore, it provides a means to greater energy equity for parts of the world that lack the infrastructure. For fusion to become this potential energy resource of the future, we must first understand the system's numerous complexities. Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission; instead of splitting large atoms into smaller ones, it combines smaller ones like hydrogen isotopes into larger ones like helium releasing tremendous amounts of energy without the harmful byproducts. It is also the same energy resource that fuels the stars and is responsible for creating most of the universe's larger elements. Fusion is one of the reasons I got into the field and remain in it.


Q: How did you get interested in science and engineering?

I'm not exactly sure when my passion for science developed, but I can tell you that the mysteries and challenges of the universe have always fascinated me. After watching the Cosmos series with Neil Degrasse Tyson in high school, I knew I was hooked on physics. I completed my degree in Physics at the University of Chicago and while I was there, I had the privilege of being part of the Flash Center for Computational Science which introduced me to the computational side of physics. I was able to contribute to the FLASH code, a radiation MHD simulation code used by the international plasma and astrophysics community. During the summers, I had the opportunity to work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where I worked on high-order particle-in-cell code. These experiences led me to pursue a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics, where I will be modeling laser-plasma interactions and Z-Pinches.


At a very young age, my mother stressed the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities my sister and I were given through education. We saw her work 3-4 jobs at a time, which instilled a work ethic in us that has served us so well. My sister came to this country when she was 17. I saw her struggles and tribulations, but despite the odds, she is now a Doctor of Pharmacy (I'm so proud of her)! To say the least, the women in my life have had a profound impact on who I am today.

Q: Are you involved in anything outside of class and research?

 My current research and course obligations keep me rather busy, but I'm currently a member of the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Black Engineers. I hope to take on larger roles in the future. I did a lot of science and CS outreach during my undergrad years but haven't had the opportunity. I hope to get back to it when things are a little less remote. 

 I also take advantage of the year-round beach access when I do have some free time. I recently went snowboarding for the first time (and I'm not terrible). I also practice kickboxing and jiu-jitsu so I can take out my frustration on the heavy bag when I can't debug my code haha.

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