Scientists Are Using Plasma to Improve Everything From Computers to Tools

Dennis Manos and his researchers torture gas. They cook it, zap it with electricity and split it apart with lasers.

The gas is plasma, and Manos and other researchers from Hampton Roads universities are using it to improve everything from computer chips to medical diagnostic tools to auto manufacturing.

Manos, an applied science professor at the College of William and Mary, along with researhers from Old Dominion University, Christopher Newport University, Norfolk State and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, have a $2 million grant from the state to run a Plasma and Photon Research Center in Newport News.

These are not mad scientists running around in white coats; they're more like businessmen, interested in how to make things more functional and economic.

The center, located in the Applied Research Center adjacent to Jefferson Lab, will bring in as many as 100 faculty members, students and research technicians.

Their main mission is to help businesses in Hampton Roads become more competitive by assisting them with research. Manos says the center also wants to create new jobs by doing research that can lead to the startup of new products and companies.

The center is a series of different research efforts, all manipulating plasma for a different end.

Plasma is a gas that has been made neutral, or has an equal number of positive and negative charges. You can make plasma out of any kind of matter by first vaporizing it and then changing the electrical charges.

In one room, researchers study how companies make computer chips from sand. They turn the sand into silicon, purify the silicon, make it into a wafer the size of a record, process it and then cut it up into computer chips, like a baker cuts out cookies.

The researchers figure out how to shrink little transistors, electronic switches the size of a quarter, until they are so tiny you can fit more than a million onto a postage stamp.

"We don't make things," says Manos. "We help people who want to make things smaller, faster, cheaper, better."

In another room, faculty and students are trying to figure out if they can apply the same technology they use to look at tiny computer chips to look inside something living.

They're working on a form of imaging similar to X-ray, perfecting speed and resolution, hoping to come up with a new way to diagnose breast cancer.

"The goal is to see things about the size of a grain of sand," says Manos.

"And to see them as quickly as possible."

The hallway floor to the research rooms is hospital white. Fluorescent lights hang from the ceiling, lighting black counters that look like the kind you see in college chemistry labs. In some rooms, the counters are littered with pieces of computer parts, tubes and wires, like someone has started dismantling the products in a Radio Shack store.

The machines that do the work on the plasma resemble copiers, steel cook pots with metal snake-like tubes coming out of them, and computer screens that glow when you look closely.

Joseph Ametepe, a William and Mary Ph.D student in applied science, is making a 9,000-watt light bulb. The most powerful bulb you can buy commercially today is 6,000 watts. That's six times the strength of a bulb used to light streets.

Ametepe's light is not a bulb as we know it. It's a bulb for manipulating plasma. Its light is powerful but outside the range of what the human eye can see.

He'll use the light to make an antibacterial nylon by shining it on the fabric while it's in a gas. Germs then die when they land on the treated nylon.

This process could be used for carpets, shower curtains and air filters, Manos says.

The center's work takes inexpensive products and makes them into something new, useful and marketable.

"We make money here," Ametepe says.