Booz Allen Colloquium in ECE: "National Security Research in Plasma Physics and Pulsed Power"

Friday, November 14, 2014
3:00 p.m.
Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building, Rm. 1110
Jasmine Cooper

Booz Allen Hamilton Distinguished Colloquium in Electrical and Computer Engineering

"National Security Research in Plasma Physics and Pulsed Power: Past, Present, and Future: From a Naval Research Laboratory Perspective"

Dr. Thomas Mehlhorn
Naval Research Laboratory


U.S. national security strategy is predicated on technological superiority. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was established in 1923 to fulfill Thomas Edison’s vision of a government research laboratory that could develop and translate scientific knowledge into effective military systems in times of war. The NRL Plasma Physics Division was established in 1966 to create x-ray simulators for testing the effects of nuclear weapons on materials and components of military hardware, to study the physics and effects of High Altitude Nuclear Explosions (HANE), and to perform nuclear fusion research. This talk will briefly trace the development of pulsed power and plasma physics from 1940 to the present day through a set of graphical timeframes that depict both the major geopolitical events and the major research facilities in a series of 15-20 year epochs. Pulsed power research began at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, where it was first used for radiography. Subsequently, Sandia, Los Alamos, and Livermore performed pulsed power research for an expanding set of missions. The 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative led to the development of technologies for directed energy weapons, railguns, and x-ray lasers. The cessation of nuclear testing in 1992 created an increased need for “above ground testing” including advanced radiography, nuclear weapons effects simulators, hydrotest facilities, and inertial confinement fusion devices. In 2012 the DoD announced a strategic pivot to the joint force of 2020 and a rebalance towards the Asian-Pacific region. Looking to the future, a number of DoD documents describe the need to develop and deploy transformational technologies. For example, the 2012 Naval S&T Strategic Plan emphasizes hypervelocity railguns, directed energy, the detection and neutralization of weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to retain access in contested environments, especially in space. Future military systems will require pulsed power that is compact, repetitive, efficient, and is thermally managed. Low-temperature plasmas and non-equilibrium plasma chemistry are emerging research areas that could impact DoD missions. Atmospheric plasmas are creating new opportunities in plasma biology and plasma medicine. The research capabilities of the rest of the world, especially China, are rapidly growing and new ideas and capabilities will increasingly come from outside of the U.S. This talk will explore some of the future challenges and opportunities for plasma physics and pulsed power research in a national security context.


Thomas Mehlhorn, is the Superintendent of the NRL Plasma Physics Division, and a member of the Department of the Navy (DoN) Senior Executive Service with responsibility for a broad spectrum of research programs in plasma physics, laboratory discharge and space plasmas, intense electron and ion beams and photon sources, atomic physics, pulsed power sources, radiation hydrodynamics, high-power microwaves, laser physics, advanced spectral diagnostics, and nonlinear systems. Dr. Mehlhorn earned his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1974, 1976 and 1978, respectively. He worked at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a member of technical staff (1978-1988), department manager (1989-2005), and senior manager (2006-2009). His research interests included intense electron and ion beams generation, focusing and interactions; inertial confinement fusion; high energy density physics; Z-pinch physics; dynamic materials and shock physics; and advanced radiography. Dr. Mehlhorn is the recipient of numerous merit awards, is a Fellow of the APS DPP (2011), Fellow of the IEEE (2014), and Fellow of the AAAS in Physics (2006), and a member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the Directed Energy Professionals Society (DEPS).


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