CHEM/PHYSICS PROFESSORS COLLABORATE
Though scientific research is a serious thing, full of deadlines, proposals, and intricate experiments, it can be fun as well.
This has been true of Paul Farnsworth and Ross Spencer’s collaboration on the flow of plasma ions into a mass spectrometer through which the two professors have developed a great friendship.
Farnsworth, a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Spencer, of Physics and Astronomy, are now in their seventh year on a Department of Energy grant. The project studies the flow of plasma ions through a mass spectrometer. This instrument is so sensitive that if a grain of salt was thrown into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the mass spectrometer could detect the concentration—the equivalent of a few parts per quadrillion.
With such a sensitive instrument, the ions must be consistently and efficiently transported from the high atmospheric pressure they are created at to the vacuum of the mass spectrometer. Because of the large difference in pressures, this process is very difficult and expensive to characterize experimentally. In order to meet this challenge, Farnsworth invited Spencer to collaborate by providing computer models and simulations of the data. Both agree that their work and published papers have been greatly improved by this process.
“Our combined efforts are a lot stronger than either one of them would have been individually,” said Farnsworth. “The idea was that we could develop a model—someone could calculate things that we couldn’t do experimentally.” Laughing, he added, “But it turns out that the calculations are just about as hard as the experiments.”
Despite the challenges of turning the experimental data into models, Spencer was well-prepared by his background in plasma physics. Still, he jokes that understanding Farnsworth’s jargon was another task.