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£5 Million Fuses UK Astrophysics and Fusion Energy Research

The UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced a £5 million initiative that will fuse the talents of two of the UK's leading teams researching plasma physics. The new "Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics" (CFSA) will see astrophysicists researching the high energy plasmas in the solar corona working alongside researchers who are exploring how to confine plasma in order to produce useful fusion power here on earth. The new centre will open up significant new opportunities in astrophysics, fusion and plasma physics in the UK and draw many more physics students to take up research in this crucial field.

This EPSRC Science and Innovation award supports research into the fundamental physics of the exotic fourth state of matter known as plasma. Plasmas are the hottest things in the universe. Scientists study plasmas to understand our universe, and to harness fusion energy for electricity generation- fusion power is one possible replacement for fossil fuels in our energy supply. One example of this collaborative research is the results coming from astrophysicists' study of plasma turbulence in the solar wind through data gathered by space missions which has obvious parallels with the problems fusion power researchers face dealing with the difficulties of plasma confinement of nuclear fusion.

The new Centre builds on the successful record of collaboration between the University of Warwick astroplasma physicists, who have a strong track record in the physics of the sun and solar system, and fusion plasma physicists at UKAEA Culham Science Centre. The CFSA will be directed by Professor Sandra Chapman (who leads Plasma Astrophysics at Warwick) and Professor Richard Dendy (who leads the Theoretical Physics Group at UKAEA Culham). It will specialize in interdisciplinary research linking academic astrophysics to practical energy research.
This initiative follows the report of The DTI Science Panel which noted that the Euratom-supported JET facilities, at Culham, are a "flagship for physics" that is under-utilized by UK universities. It further noted Culham's world leadership in developing the spherical tokamak concept. The group thought that more engagement by Culham with university departments was essential and pointed out that university space and astrophysics research has the greatest overlap with fusion plasma physics, and "records with pleasure the steady flow of articles applying fusion plasma techniques in space and astrophysics". The Science Panel stated that "the Culham group and its Warwick collaborators are among the world leaders".

As well as producing cutting edge science, the CFSA will play a key role in addressing the shortage of UK researchers working in this field. In particular UK universities possess only a handful of researchers whose primary interest is in magnetic confinement fusion plasmas and there is a real concern about where the next generation of UK fusion physicists will come from.

The University of Warwick and Culham have already been active in addressing this problem. They initiated a programme of joint PhD student supervision that has attracted some of the brightest students to take up research in these fields. The Centre will also encourage many more undergraduate students to study plasma physics and perhaps take it forward as a research career. This partnership will enable a far more extensive programme of final year undergraduate projects to be undertaken, in collaboration with "big science" fusion facilities at Culham which will generate even more interest among physics students and help supply future generations of UK plasma and fusion scientists.

The University of Warwick has also been awarded a further £3.8 million by EPSRC to set up a Centre for Discrete Mathematics and its Applications led by Professor Mike Paterson in the University's Department of Computer Science. It will also draw on researchers from the University's Department of Mathematics and Warwick Business School. It will focus on both the interface between mathematics and computer science and the fundamentals of operational research and it will have an Industrial Affiliates Programme which will transfer knowledge and solutions to industry and other users.

Notes for editors: The CFSA's web page is:

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager
University of Warwick 07767 655860
02476 523708

Professor Sandra Chapman, Dept of Physics
University of Warwick, 024 76 523390

Natasha Richardson, EPSRC Press office
01793 444404

Professor Richard Dendy, Euratom/UKAEA Fusion
Association, Culham Science Centre
01235 466377

Jennifer Hay, Euratom/UKAEA Fusion
Association, Culham Science Centre
01235 466232

PR20 PJD 17th March 2006