Killian earns prestigious Packard Fellowship

Killian earns prestigious Packard Fellowship


Rice News Staff

About 99 percent of the known matter in the universe exists as plasma — gas that consists of ions, electrons and neutral particles. Since most plasmas occur in hot  laces, like the surface of the sun or the flame of a candle, plasma physics has focused almost exclusively on the study of hot plasmas.

Rice University physicist Thomas C. Killian is one of a handful of physicists worldwide who are adapting techniques developed in atomic physics to open up a new area of plasma research in the realm of the ultracold. Killian’s groundbreaking work entered the national spotlight last month when he was awarded a Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. The prestigious fellowships are awarded each year to just 20 of the nation’s most promising young scientists.

The five-year fellowship, from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, includes $625,000 in unrestricted grant funds. Killian said winning the award was both surprising and overwhelming at first. “I am deeply honored to be selected because there were many deserving candidates,” he said.

The foundation accepted just 100 nominations for the fellowships from a select list of 50 invited universities. Killian is the first Rice faculty member to receive the award.

“This really changes everything for me,” said Killian, who’s been at Rice about 18 months. “Before, if a piece of equipment cost $15,000, but I could have my students build it for $1,000, I’d save the money, even though that might cost valuable time. Now, I can just spend the money and move on.”

Killian’s the first to admit that he’s still adjusting to this new way of thinking. He hasn’t decided exactly what equipment he’ll buy, but he is certain that he’ll use a large portion of the fellowship to recruit a top-notch, postdoctoral research assistant.

“As a faculty member, you have a lot of obligations outside the lab,” said Killian. “It’s really important to have someone who’s there all the time, who can answer students’ questions so that things don’t come to a halt while you’re away.”

Using laser cooling techniques pioneered in atomic physics, Killian and his students are creating ultracold neutral plasmas.

The behavior of plasma is dominated by the electromagnetic interaction between the charged particles it contains. Plasma physicists learn about that fundamental nature of matter by studying the ways that atoms and electrons behave while they’re in this novel state.

For example, plasmas tend to be fragile, requiring a steady input of energy to keep the ions and electrons from recombining into neutrally charged atoms. Recent experiments have found that rates of recombination in ultracold plasmas are so different from rates in hot plasmas that they might represent a new paradigm, an entirely new pattern of recombination.

Killian said his area of research is particularly exciting because it draws from two disciplines within physics — plasma research and atomic research — which have  historically been separated.

That type of cross cultivation between research disciplines has yielded some of the most interesting discoveries in science.

“It’s too early to say what kinds of applications might result from this, but I’m confident that what we’re doing will be used in new technologies,” Killian said. “History has shown time and again that every time scientists discover something new and basic about the nature of the physical universe, someone will find a way to make practical use of that.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.