An argon plasma jet forms a rapidly growing corkscrew, known as a kink instability. This instability causes an even faster-developing behavior called a Rayleigh-Taylor instability, in which ripples grow and tear the jet apart. This phenomenon, the Caltech researchers say, has never been seen before and could be important in understanding solar flares and in developing nuclear fusion as a future energy source. Credit: A. L. Moser and P. M. Bellan, Caltech
In the experiments, Moser fired jets of hydrogen, nitrogen, and argon plasmas at speeds of about 10 to 50 kilometers per second across a distance of more than 20 centimeters in a vacuum. [...]The experiment requires 200 million watts of power to produce jets that are a scorching 20,000 degrees Kelvin and carry a current of 100,000 amps. To study the jets, Moser used cameras that can take a snapshot in less than a microsecond, or one millionth of a second.As in all electrical currents, the flowing electrons in the plasma jet generate a magnetic field, which then exerts a force on the plasma. These electromagnetic interactions between the magnetic field and the plasma can cause the jet to writhe and form a rapidly expanding corkscrew. [...]She found that—more often than not—the corkscrew shape that developed in her jets grew exponentially and extremely fast. The jets in the experiment formed 20-centimeter-long coils in just 20 to 25 microseconds. She also noticed tiny ripples that began appearing on the inner edge of the coil just before the jet broke—the moment when there was a magnetic reconnection.
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