“I chose to focus on these particles because no one else is doing them, because they’re too difficult.”
There’s cutting edge, and then there’s unheard of. In his current research into the particle physics subject of charge transfer, Vola Andrianarijaona, professor of physics, is definitely approaching the latter distinction.
Charge transfer is one type of interaction that occurs between molecules upon collision. Some elements of this subject have already been researched extensively, but Vola has taken an interest in a much more challenging area—the low energy charge transfer involving atomic hydrogen and its derivatives, some of the most important astroparticles.
“I chose to focus on these particles because no one else is doing them, because they’re too difficult,” Vola says. That’s no idle boast. The particles within the scope of Vola’s research—specifically atomic hydrogen and molecular ion hydrogen—simply do not exist in Earth’s normal environment, and only occur naturally in the near-vacuum of space and the extreme upper atmosphere. Currently only three research facilities in the world can simulate the conditions for these collisions, using a process called merged beam technique. That means the last few months have involved a lot of travel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the U.S. government’s largest science and energy lab; and the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium.
UCL in particular holds a special connection for Vola—he completed his doctoral studies there and served as an assistant professor. Furthermore, it was Vola himself who designed and built one of the advanced pieces of equipment at UCL that is now playing an integral part of this cutting edge research. It’s so advanced, in fact, that scientists have yet to name the device and the techniques for operating it. Vola himself describes it as “something like a portable 3-D image device.”
For all the travel involved, including travel for his student research assistants, Vola’s grant from the National Science Foundation is an essential component of his research. Securing this grant was no easy task—the NSF rejected his first application before agreeing to fund the research for up to three years, based upon annual reviews of his work.
The NSF grant has been vital in providing an important resource as Andrianarijaona performs his experiments: the assistance of excellent student researchers. PUC physics majors Christian Guillén, Shalyn Romano, and April Vassantachart accompanied the physicist on his most recent trip to Oak Ridge. "Other scientists literally came up to me and said, 'Vola, I didn't expect that your students would be that good,'" he says.
Given the obscure nature of Vola’s subject, one might be tempted to wonder what’s the point. Why study a set of particles that hardly even exist within our sphere?
According to Vola, the study of astroparticle charge transfer could yield important information in four different areas. First, as the most basic element in the universe, new insight into the behaviors of hydrogen has the potential to reshape our understandings of fundamental physics. Second, the reactions under observation mimic the conditions of our universe’s earliest moments, meaning that Vola’s findings could shed new light on the scientific assumptions as to how—and when—those moments occurred. The implications of charge transfer also touch two areas a little closer to everyday life: the cooling of nuclear reactions and health science—including the evaluation of current methods of cancer treatment.
Quite a broad range of applications—which is why Vola has been in demand at those advanced research facilities in recent months. He has already published portions of his findings in several peer-reviewed astrophysics journals, and has received several invitations to speak at notable scientific conferences around the country and the world.
Vola hopes to have his latest findings from Belgium and Oak Ridge published this spring. In the meantime, his research continues—and with it, the very horizons of physics for tomorrow’s scientific community.