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The Sciences

Opening up new capabilities:
World-renowned physicist becomes new Terawatt director

By John Wheeler

The opportunity to do research at a facility like no other in the world is what has attracted Tom Cowan to his new position as director at the Nevada Terawatt Facility (NTF) — a world-class part of the University of Nevada, Reno's physics department.

NTF, located in Stead, about eight miles north of Reno, has a high-density Z-pinch device, developed for fusion-energy research, capable of generating two trillion watts of power. It's also currently assembling a one-tenth-scale petawatt laser — a petawatt of laser light is a million billion watts. Each of these devices would be impressive alone, but their use in combination opens the door to research that can be done at no other facility in the world.

"It opens really new capabilities," Cowan says. "No one else is presently doing the same kind of research combining the two. I left General Atomics to come here because the opportunity is really exciting."

Cowan, 43, who assumed his position at the NTF April 1, is a world-renowned expert in short-pulse lasers. He spent the last two years at General Atomics in San Diego. General Atomics is a private corporation that does fusion energy research and defense contracting. It developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle used for reconnaissance and military operations. His four-person research team from General Atomics is also moving from San Diego to join the NTF.

"Our group is very productive right now scientifically," Cowan says. "We have some very good collaborations with other researchers in the world. My team will be folded in with the existing researchers here. I think this university is a very exciting place. It's steadily moving up the ladder in terms of its national rating. I think very quickly this will be a nationally recognized program in high-energy density physics and plasma physics."

Cowan's arrival means that the current NTF team, led by Bruno Bauer, associate professor of physics, will be freed from many of its administrative chores and will be able to concentrate its energies on scientific research.

"I'm coming in at a time when the hard work has been done," Cowan says. "Bruno's done a fabulous job in getting this facility up and running and getting the infrastructure together. But it's come at a price. He hasn't been able to concentrate on his scientific directions as much as he would have liked.

Bauer received the university's Mousel-Feltner Award for Outstanding Research in 1998. In 1997, Bauer was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their careers. Like Cowan, Bauer's experience working at national laboratories has been instrumental in creating the NTF's infrastructure. (The Z-pinch came from Los Alamos; the laser comes from Lawrence Livermore.)

"Our plan is to work closely with other laboratories," Cowan says. "In addition to Los Alamos and Livermore, Sandia National Laboratory has expressed an extremely strong interest in having a close relationship with the NTF."

Cowan says the Z-pinch device at the NTF can do important work for the large labs because it's cost effective and because of the Z-pinch/laser combination.

"It'll be a wonderful place to understand the basic physics and then to stage experiments and test out the concepts before they (Sandia) invest a huge amount of money," Cowan says. A single experimental shot on the much larger Sandia Z-pinch can cost up to $100,000, he adds.

Cowan's career includes some historic experiences. He was the first person to see optically induced fission; part of the team that produced the first nuclear physics reactions driven solely by laser light; and he worked with the first laser to split atoms and create antimatter.

The goal for physicists, he says, is to figure out how to create an ion-generating device small enough to fit in a room. That would allow ion therapy — a treatment modality that has been proven successful — to be available at hospitals. It's a difficult problem, but Cowan is optimistic that ultimately it will be solved.

"Perhaps it's a long shot?" he says. "I don't know. At the point of basic physics and where we are now in terms of the elements one needs, it's very encouraging."

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