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Introduction to Plasma Science & Technology & Stellar Physics - PHY00048H

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  • Department: Physics
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Charles Barton
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Related modules

Co-requisite modules

  • None

Prohibited combinations

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21 to Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

This module draws together many aspects of physics covered in the first two years of the physics course and applies them to plasmas and the cauldrons of our cosmos – stars. The module will draw upon knowledge of classical and quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, classical and statistical thermodynamics, relativistic and non-relativistic dynamics, atomic and molecular spectroscopy, nuclear synthesis and reactions, kinetic theory and the transport properties of matter, and solid state physics. Concepts will be revisited or introduced as needed.

Introduction to Plasma Science and Technology: A plasma is an ionised gas containing free electrons and ions. The freedom of the electrical charges to move in response to electric and magnetic fields couples the charged particles so that they respond collectively to external fields. Plasmas are common place around the universe and have many important technological and biomedical applications on Earth, so the topic of plasma physics is important in many branches of science, linking to medicine, materials, fusion, particle acceleration and astrophysics. This course aims to introduce the basic plasma physics principles through a combination of physical pictures and mathematical analyses, often using examples of research activities at York to provide specific applications. The course will introduce aspects of plasma science and technology across magnetic confinement fusion, laser plasma interactions and low temperature plasma research activity at York.

Stellar Physics The module then proceeds to develop the physics of the formation, evolution and death of stars. It commences by discussing the origin of the gas and dust in a galaxy, its condensation under gravity to form a protostar and its evolution onto the main sequence. The energy production mechanisms are dealt with in some detail as are the heat transport mechanisms within the stellar interior. The various classes of star are then examined including variables such as Cepheids, Wolf-Rayets and nova. The description of stellar spectra as a function of surface temperature and composition is then discussed in order to relate spectra and composition. The gradual evolution of stars off the main sequence is described as a function of the original mass of gas from which they were composed. This then leads to consideration of the evolutionary histories of stars as a function of mass. The Red Giant phase of a star’s evolution is then described together with the way in which it evolves to become a white dwarf or supernova. Element synthesis during all stages of stellar evolution is covered as well as during the violent endpoints of stellar evolution.


Module learning outcomes

Introduction to Plasma Science and Technology:

  • Describe, both through physical pictures and mathematics, the orbits of individual particles in magnetic and electric fields: the cyclotron frequency, the guiding centre, the ExB drift, the gradB and curvature drifts and the polarisation drift.
  • Describe the physics of Debye shielding and be able to derive the Debye length mathematically. Write down the definitions of a plasma.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the distribution function and how to derive plasma density and flux by integrating over velocity space.
  • Describe the physics of a plasma sheath and be able to drive plasma sheath parameters using a simplified sheath model.
  • Without rigorous mathematical derivation, describe how plasma fluid equations can be obtained from the kinetic equations for plasma evolution. Given the fluid equations, describe the physics of the individual terms.
  • Recall the requirements and criteria to obtain fusion and outline two confinement strategies for fusion plasmas.
  • Discuss weakly ionised plasmas and plasma breakdown and electron transport in dc electric fields
  • Recall the requirements and criteria to obtain fusion and outline two confinement strategies for fusion plasmas.
  • Discuss in depth the physics that underpins a research topic, chosen from one of the following areas of plasma science: Magnetic Confinement Fusion, Laser Plasma Interactions or Low Temperature Plasma.

Stellar Physics:

  • Describe and apply the physical principles underlying gravitational collapse of a dust cloud to form a protostar.
  • Describe and derive aspects of energy production and heat transport mechanisms within the stellar interior.
  • Describe stellar evolution to and from the main sequence and the conditions of hydrostatic equilibrium.
  • Calculate fusion rates and describe element synthesis within stellar environments as well as explain the abundance of elements within the universe.
  • Describe the endpoints of stellar evolution as a function of stellar mass.
  • Calculate and apply the appropriate classical or relativistic kinematics as well as the ideal or quantum mechanical gas description to the electron and ion components of the stellar interior.

Module content

Introduction to Plasma Science and Technology Syllabus:

12 lectures on fundamental plasma physics covering

  • Charged particle orbits and drifts in electromagnetic fields
  • Debye shielding and formal definition of a plasma
  • Plasma sheath
  • Distribution functions and velocity space integration
  • Kinetic equation and fluid equations (without detailed derivation), diamagnetic drift
  • Ideal MHD equations

6 lectures introducing frontier applications of plasma physics

Two Magnetic Confinement Fusion lectures on:

  • Tokamak design and confinement criteria for burning plasmas
  • Diagnostic systems and understanding the plasma to tokamak wall interaction

Two Laser Plasma Interaction lectures on:

  • Inertial Confinement Fusion and confinement criteria for burning plasmas
  • Simulating astrophysical and planetary plasmas in the laboratory and the onset quantum electrodynamics

Two Low Temperature Plasma lectures on:

  • Future plasma medical technologies; how electrons, ions, reactive neutrals, UV and electric fields interact with biological material
  • Low-pressure plasmas, for example, used in plasma etching in manufacturing computer chips. or solar cells and satellite space thrusters.

Stellar Physics Syllabus

  • Big Bang nucleosynthesis and gravitational contraction – The synthesis of light elements and hydrostatic equilibrium of non-relativistic and ultra-relativistic particles.
  • Star Formation and the Sun– The Jean’s Criteria, contraction of a protostar, conditions for stardom, pressure, density, temperature, and solar radiation.
  • Links to radiation transport laser plasma measurements of opacities relevant to stellar physics
  • Stellar Nucleosynthesis and Stellar Life Cycles – Stellar mass and the extent of thermonuclear fusion, burning cycles, neutron capture, the rate and endpoint of stellar evolution, abundances of chemical elements.
  • Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram – Luminosity, surface temperature, star clusters, tracks and variable stars.
  • Properties of Matter within stars – Ideal gas law, density of states, internal energy, pressure, ideal classical gas, electrons in stars, degenerate electron gases, density-temperature diagram.
  • Properties of Radiation within stars – Photon gas, radiation pressure, the Saha Equation, ionization in stars and stellar atmospheres, pair production and photodisintegration.
  • Heat transfer in stars – heat transfer via random motion of particles and photons, convection, temperature gradients in stars.
  • Thermonuclear fusion in stars – barrier penetration, cross sections, reaction rates, H burning, the p-p chain, CNO cycle, He burning, C production and consumption, advanced burning to Fe-Ni region.
  • Stellar structure– pressure, temperature and density inside stars, Modelling the Sun, minimum and maximum masses of stars.
  • Endpoints of stellar evolution– white dwarfs, collapse of stellar cores, neutron stars, black holes.
  • Helioseismology– pressure and gravity waves, normal modes of oscillation, observations of our Sun from Earth and satellite missions.

Lecture notes

Students are expected to take their own notes during lectures. A set of skeleton notes will be made available online at the end of the course.


Task Length % of module mark
Intro to Plasma Science & Technology assignments
N/A 7
Physics practice questions
N/A 7
University - closed examination
Introduction to Plasma Science & Technology
1.5 hours 43
University - closed examination
Stellar Physics
1.5 hours 43

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Intro to Plasma Science & Technology assignments
N/A 7
University - closed examination
Introduction to Plasma Science & Technology
1.5 hours 43
University - closed examination
Stellar Physics
1.5 hours 43

Module feedback

Physics Practice Questions (PPQs) - You will receive the marked scripts via your pigeon holes. Feedback solutions will be provided on the VLE or by other equivalent means from your lecturer. As feedback solutions are provided, normally detailed comments will not be written on your returned work, although markers will indicate where you have lost marks or made mistakes. You should use your returned scripts in conjunction with the feedback solutions.

Exams - You will receive the marks for the individual exams from eVision. Detailed model answers will be provided on the intranet. You should discuss your performance with your supervisor.

Advice on academic progress - Individual meetings with supervisor will take place where you can discuss your academic progress in detail.

Assignments - Feedback on assignments will be returned within four weeks of the assignment deadline.

Indicative reading

Introduction to Plasma Science and Technology

Umran S. Inan and Marek Golkowski Principles of Plasma Physics for Engineers and Scientists –, Cambridge University Press (2011)

Chen F F: Introduction to plasma physics and controlled fusion (Plenum) ***

Goldston & Rutherford: Introduction to plasma physics (IoP) **

For specialist Intro. PS&T lectures

Atzeni and Meyer-ter-Vehn: The physics of inertial fusion (Oxford Science) **

Wesson: Tokamaks, Oxford Science Publications ***

Alexander Fridman and Gary Friedman, Plasma Medicine, Wiley (2013)

Stellar Physics

Phillips A C: The Physics of Stars (Wiley, 2nd Ed 1999)***

Kippenhahn R and Weigert A: Stellar Structure and Evolution (Springer-Verlag)*

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.