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The fourth state of matter: How Sun's plasma could help answer humanity's challenges

Scientists are studying plasma in the Sun’s atmosphere, to help address some of humanity’s greatest challenges – from harnessing an endless source of green energy to building knowledge of the Earth’s climate.

In understanding more about solar physics, the team will also push the boundaries of knowledge about space weather, space travel and fundamental astrophysics. The £1.1 million study, funded by the Horizon Europe programme, is a collaboration of universities and research institutions in the UK, Czech Republic, Argentina and Colombia. It will use data from world-leading ground-based and spaceborne telescopes, alongside modelling with state-of-the-art theoretical approaches including machine-learning – a type of artificial intelligence (AI).

Principal Investigator Professor Valery Nakariakov, Department of Physics, at the University of Warwick, said: “More than 99% of the visible Universe is in the form of a plasma – the fourth state of matter. The study of physical properties of a plasma, however, forms one of the most far ranging and challenging research areas in physics today.

“From cosmological objects to controlled fusion, this complex, but fundamental, state of matter is proving to be of ever-greater significance in understanding the dynamics of the Universe and in harnessing the material world for the greatest technological result and the improvement of our society.

“The strategic aims of plasma research relate to the global challenges faced by humankind. One is the ecologically friendly and practically endless source of energy, the controlled fusion reaction that is believed to be achievable in magnetic confinement reactors. The working body in tokamaks reactors (devices used to generate energy via fusion reactions) is a plasma. Another is the understanding of an important aspect of climate change, the solar effect on climate. Also, the plasma research plays the central role in Space Weather, the study of the solar-terrestrial relations through the physical processes operating in the outermost layer of the Sun - the heliosphere.

“This branch of science is becoming increasingly important in the context of space exploration, for example Moon and Mars expeditions, and the stability and safety of space-based telecommunication and tele-navigation systems, and energy supply lines and pipelines.

“I’m thrilled to be involved in this study of plasma physics – which are fundamental for astrophysical processes. The solar corona is the ‘Rosetta stone’ for plasma behaviour in other astrophysical objects, and a natural laboratory for basic plasma physics studies.”

Professor James McLaughlin of Northumbria University adds: “The Sun affects the Earth on a global scale, and so it makes sense to tackle these challenges with a truly international team. It is wonderful to be involved in this Horizon Europe programme that will share knowledge via the exchange of staff and students across Europe and South America.”

The institutions involved in this study are the University of Warwick (Principal Investigator), Northumbria University (UK), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), University of South Bohemia České Budějovice (Czech Rep.) on the European side, and the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnicas (Argentina), and National University of Columbia, Colombia.

Find out more about the Warwick research centre here

Notes to Editors

University of Warwick press office contact:

Annie Slinn

Communications Officer | Press & Media Relations | University of Warwick


25 July 2023