Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Whitworth senior completes fellowship at Princeton's plasma physics lab

Ben Hamming also conducted a NASA Washington Space Grant project

Out of nearly 100 applicants nationwide last summer, Whitworth senior Ben Hamming was one of 35 undergraduate students accepted into Princeton's National Undergraduate Fellowship Program in Plasma Physics and Fusion Energy Sciences. Through the program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Hamming spent one week of intensive, six-hour days of plasma physics training on Princeton's campus last June before traveling to San Diego, where he completed a nine-week fellowship at General Atomics.

Hamming says the fellowship was his first choice for a summer internship and he enjoyed meeting and learning from the physicists at Princeton, as well as physics students from across the country.

"Being at Princeton was a great opportunity to see what grad school really looks like," says Hamming, who is originally from Lynden, Wash., and is majoring in physics. "I always wondered how my physics education compared to what is offered at other more technically oriented schools. It is nice to know that I can be competitive in a national job market."

Hamming's work at General Atomics involved hot fusion, an alternative to the once-popular idea of cold fusion, which scientists are pursuing as a solution to the world's energy problems.

"Hot fusion is so attractive because its fuel sources are plentiful, its waste is not as radioactive as that of fission plants (i.e. current nuclear plants), and they do not involve nuclear weapon technology so we can avoid problems like the one with Iran now where they say their program is for power generation but we all know it could also make weapons," he says.

The problem, Hamming says, is that to get fusion working, the fuel needs to be significantly hotter than the sun. So anything the fuel comes in contact with would be destroyed. One of the most promising methods of getting around that problem, he says, is called magnetic confinement fusion, a process in which the fuel is held floating away from its surroundings by magnetic fields.

In November, Hamming presented his research at the 53rd annual conference for the American Physics Society's Division of Plasma Physics.

In addition to his work with General Atomics, last year Hamming and senior Marc Rollins worked with Whitworth Associate Professor of Physics Kamesh Sankaran on a NASA Washington Space Grant project, for which he calculated optimum trajectories for a spacecraft mission to an asteroid.

The pair worked on making a MATLAB program to optimize trajectories for low-thrust spacecraft to near-Earth objects. Hamming says some engines can be attached to spacecraft and are very efficient but have little strength. A traditional rocket, on the other hand, is very inefficient but has a significant amount of strength.

Hamming says the program he created with Rollins was not as accurate as other preexisting programs, but it ran very quickly.

"Its usefulness lies in its ability to quickly give the user an estimate of time and fuel requirements for a trip to an asteroid," he says.

Hamming also co-authored a paper, "Evaluation of Low-Thrust Propulsion Options for Cargo Missions to Near Earth Objects," with Rollins and Sankaran on their findings, which Sankaran presented last year at a conference for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Outside of his academic work, Hamming has also been a member of Whitworth's varsity men's tennis team for four years.

Hamming's family has long been associated with Whitworth. His mother, Elizabeth Hamming, brother Tom Hamming, '10, and cousin Matt Wilding, '10, all attended Whitworth. His brother and cousin both graduated with degrees in computer science.

"It has been really nice having my brother and cousin close by because they are very good at what they do and I often get help from them when I have problems with software I am writing," he says. "Both my summer internships have been very programming intensive so their help has been invaluable."

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworth.edu.