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Release: May 22, 2001

UI physicist wins prestigious $2.1 million federal grant

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Amitava Bhattacharjee, professor of physics and astronomy in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts, has won a three-year, $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science to establish a center for studying a natural phenomenon known as "magnetic reconnection."

Under the aegis of the DOE's Program on Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing, the UI will serve as the lead institution, with the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin serving as partner institutions. The proposal from the multi-institutional consortium headed by the UI group ranked first in the nationwide competition. Other groups funded include Princeton University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Magnetic reconnection causes magnetic fields in the universe to reconfigure themselves, liberating enormous amounts of energy. The phenomenon occurs in nature as well as under controlled conditions in the laboratory. For example, it is widely believed to act as the "switch" that allows magnetic energy to be transferred to particles flowing outward from the sun to the Earth when a solar flare erupts. Another phenomenon in which it is also believed to play an important role is the so-called magnetic substorm that produces the northern lights, or aurora borealis, as well as the aurora australis and occasional interruptions in radio and satellite communications.

To be known as the "Center for Magnetic Reconnection Studies," this research enterprise will be directed by Bhattacharjee from the UI department of physics and astronomy. Faculty, research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students from the three institutions will perform theoretical and high-performance computational studies of magnetic reconnection, with applications to laboratory and astrophysical plasmas.

"The establishment of this inter-disciplinary center at UI is the culmination of several years of work in magnetic reconnection spanning laboratory, space, and astrophysical plasma physics," he says. "Our partner institutions, the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin, bring valuable expertise in theoretical and computational techniques, and together we intend to produce state-of-the-art computer codes that will run on parallel computers and can simulate a wide range of phenomenon on laboratory as well as astrophysical scales."

Bhattacharjee, who came to the UI in 1993, earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1981. For his work on magnetic reconnection, he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1993 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000.