Research Topics

Below is a list of research topics supported by the AFRL. Use the filters and keyword search below to find research topics of interest. You can apply for up to 3 topics on your application.




Scholars are encouraged to contact any mentors whose projects they find of interest. To contact the mentor, use the link included at the conclusion of each project description.

Applying Artificial Intelligence to Plasma Diagnostics
Mentor: Remington Reid, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

Accurately measuring the properties of electrons in plasmas has been an ongoing research challenge since the early twentieth century. This research topic explores the use of neural networks to extract the plasma properties from experimental measurements with greater accuracy. The research involves both developing the neural networks for better performance and the design, construction and operation of the experimental plasma devices used to generate training and validation data. Interested applicants may choose to focus on either the computational or experimental aspects of the research.


Characterization of High Power Microwave-Driven Discharges
Mentor: Adrian Lopez, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The high power microwave plasma (HPMP) group studies the interactions between high power electromagnetic waves and plasmas. Current research efforts involve the characterization of discharges generated at the focus of a high power microwave beam. Students will collect and analyze data using invasive and non-invasive plasma diagnostic methods; modifications and improvements to the diagnostic systems will likely be involved. Applicants will also have the opportunity to contribute to the development of numerical models that describe the microwave-driven discharges.


Characterization of High Power Microwave-Driven Discharges
Mentor: Adrian Lopez, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The high power microwave plasma (HPMP) group studies the interactions between high power electromagnetic waves and plasmas. Current research efforts involve the characterization of discharges generated at the focus of a high power microwave beam. Students will collect and analyze data using invasive and non-invasive plasma diagnostic methods; modifications and improvements to the diagnostic systems will likely be involved. Applicants will also have the opportunity to contribute to the development of numerical models that describe the microwave-driven discharges.


Dynamic Plasma Coupling in Laboratory, Computer, Space
Mentor: david lyttleton cooke, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

We are developing a laboratory plasma device called EMPD (ExB drifting Magnetized Plasma Device. EMPD is a 4' dia. by 6' long vacuum chamber with 0-200 Gauss axial magnetic field "bottle" for scaled plasma experiments. We are currently developing plasma sources, experiments, and diagnostics to explore plasma-plasma coupling and Langmuir Probe physics in the positive bias flowing plasma regime which is still poorly explored, with relevance to applications as the Electro-dynamic Space Tether.


Dynamic Plasma Coupling in Laboratory, Computer, Space
Mentor: david lyttleton cooke, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

We are developing a laboratory plasma device called EMPD (ExB drifting Magnetized Plasma Device. EMPD is a 4' dia. by 6' long vacuum chamber with 0-200 Gauss axial magnetic field "bottle" for scaled plasma experiments. We are currently developing plasma sources, experiments, and diagnostics to explore plasma-plasma coupling and Langmuir Probe physics in the positive bias flowing plasma regime which is still poorly explored, with relevance to applications as the Electro-dynamic Space Tether.


Experimental Chamber Setup and Test
Mentor: Dale Curtis Ferguson, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Upper-level Undergraduate

A new experimental apparatus has recently been designed at the Spacecraft Charging and Calibration Laboratory (SCICL) to investigate current connection in magnetized flowing plasmas.  Once operational, the device will be used to study electron collection by a positive probe in ExB drifting plasma, current closure and sheath characteristics of a dipole antenna, and electron heating in Critical Ionization Velocity (CIV) experiments.  Before these experiments can be conducted, construction and characterization of the device and plasma must be completed.  The proposed project will entail aiding the construction of the vacuum chamber and components, configuration of the magnetic field coils, establishment of plasma diagnostics, formation of low temperature plasma, and creation of an axial ExB drift.  More detailed side projects along the way will include magnetic field optimization and plasma characterization using Langmuir and emissive probes.  The outlined project will give the scholar the opportunity to participate in an experiment from the construction stage and allow them to learn important operational, scientific, and design details that can be overlooked at later, more advanced, stages.


High field ultrashort pulse laser experiments
Mentor: Wes Corbin Erbsen, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, Directed Energy Directorate is interested in studying the physics of high intensity laser-matter interactions with ultrashort pulse lasers. The extreme fields that the lasers produce drive a variety of nonlinear and highly energetic phenomena, including pulse filamentation, plasma generation, and the acceleration of relativistic electrons bunches. Students will work on developing new experimental methods for better understanding the behavior of the laser or plasma interaction. They will learn to apply optical or microwave diagnostics and analysis techniques that are broadly applicable in the fields of physics and electrical engineering.


High field ultrashort pulse laser experiments
Mentor: Wes Corbin Erbsen, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The Air Force Research Laboratory, Directed Energy Directorate is interested in studying the physics of high intensity laser-matter interactions with ultrashort pulse lasers. The extreme fields that the lasers produce drive a variety of nonlinear and highly energetic phenomena, including pulse filamentation, plasma generation, and the acceleration of relativistic electron bunches. Students will work on developing new experimental methods for better understanding the behavior of the laser or plasma interaction. They will learn to apply optical or microwave diagnostics and analysis techniques that are broadly applicable in the fields of physics and electrical engineering.


Machine learning in equatorial ionospheric irregularities and scintillation
Mentor: Chaosong Huang, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Ionospheric plasma density irregularities cause fluctuations of the phase and amplitude of trans-ionospheric radio waves, and this effect is referred as scintillation. Severe scintillation often occurs at low latitudes in the evening sector, especially during solar maximum periods, and can cause degradation or even disruption in VHF/UHF communications and GPS navigation systems. The objective of this project is to use machine learning algorithms to identify how the occurrence and evolution of equatorial ionospheric irregularities and scintillation are related to potential external drivers (such as solar activity, geomagnetic activity, ionospheric plasma drifts, etc.) and to develop the capabilities of predicting scintillation occurrence. Measurements from the Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS) satellite and ground-based VHF receivers will be used. Good computer skills for data processing are important, and experience with machine learning is desirable. Knowledge on ionospheric physics is not required.


Machine learning in equatorial ionospheric irregularities and scintillation
Mentor: Chaosong Huang, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

Ionospheric plasma density irregularities cause fluctuations of the phase and amplitude of trans-ionospheric radio waves, and this effect is referred as scintillation. Severe scintillation often occurs at low latitudes in the evening sector, especially during solar maximum periods, and can cause degradation or even disruption in VHF/UHF communications and GPS navigation systems. The objective of this project is to use machine learning algorithms to identify how the occurrence and evolution of equatorial ionospheric irregularities and scintillation are related to potential external drivers (such as solar activity, geomagnetic activity, ionospheric plasma drifts, etc.) and to develop the capabilities of predicting scintillation occurrence. Measurements from the Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS) satellite and ground-based VHF receivers will be used. Good computer skills for data processing are important, and experience with machine learning is desirable. Knowledge on ionospheric physics is not required.


Modeling and code development for high intensity laser matter interactions.
Mentor: Ryan Edward Phillips, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) modeling group is seeking young scientists and engineers to join the USPL team. Using the pulse propagation code gUPPE, students will model laser induced plasma filamentation in direct support of experimental efforts. New physics models need to be developed to answer long standing questions about the group's experimental filamentation results. Students will learn to use the Air Force's world leading High Powered Computing (HPC) resources, assist with the development of new physics models, rapid prototype new simulations based on experimental feedback, and perform post-processing and data analysis


Plasma Chemistry for Space Applications
Mentor: Albert Viggiano, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Ph.D.

We study a broad range of plasma chemistry including electron attachment, ion-molecule reactions, dissociative recombination, and mutual neutralization. We specialize in studying difficult species, radicals, and extended temperature ranges. Several fast flow plasma reaction apparatuses are used. The ion-molecule temperature range is 90-1800 K, while for the other plasma processes temperatures up to 1400 K can be studied. Recent successes include measuring the only product distributions for mutual neutralization, electron attachment to fluorocarbon radicals, and the discovery that electrons catalyze mutual neutralization. A recent upgrade has allowed for studies of radicals with electrosprayed ions, which is important for solar fuels research.
The data support a wide variety of AF/DoD applications including the natural ionosphere, hypersonic vehicles, plasmas assisted combustion, high power lasers, conversion of gaseous to liquid fuels, trace gas detection, high energy density materials, and other catalytic processes.


Plasma Chemistry for Space Applications
Mentor: Albert Viggiano, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Ph.D.

We study a broad range of plasma chemistry including electron attachment, ion-molecule reactions, dissociative recombination, and mutual neutralization. We specialize in studying difficult species, radicals, and extended temperature ranges. Several fast flow plasma reaction apparatuses are used. The ion-molecule temperature range is 90-1800 K, while for the other plasma processes temperatures up to 1400 K can be studied. Recent successes include measuring the only product distributions for mutual neutralization, electron attachment to fluorocarbon radicals, and the discovery that electrons catalyze mutual neutralization. A recent upgrade has allowed for studies of radicals with electrosprayed ions, which is important for solar fuels research.
The data support a wide variety of AF/DoD applications including the natural ionosphere, hypersonic vehicles, plasmas assisted combustion, high power lasers, conversion of gaseous to liquid fuels, trace gas detection, high energy density materials, and other catalytic processes.


Plasma Chemistry for Space Related Operations
Mentor: Albert Viggiano, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Ph.D.

Our group studies a wide array of plasma chemistry in fast flow tubes. Our goal is to improve chemistry models of plasmas of interest to the Air Force and DoD. Typical examples include the natural ionosphere, high speed combustion, reentry, solar, and trace gas detection. There are four separate apparatuses in the laboratory for studying reactions at extreme temperatures and pressures as well as a variety of processes including ion-molecule, electron-molecule, ion-electron, and ion-ion. New areas of interest include solar fuels, laser ignition, and catalysis for advanced propulsion.


Processing and analysis of ionospheric plasma data measured by satellites
Mentor: Chaosong Huang, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The ionosphere is a region consisting of charged particles, from ~100 to ~1000 km above the Earth’s surface. Dynamic processes at different spatial and temporal scales always exist, and the ionosphere is significantly disturbed during geomagnetic storms. Low-Earth orbit satellites, such as the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS) satellites, provide in-situ measurements of ionospheric plasma density, temperature, electric field, and other parameters. The objective of this project is to study ionospheric disturbances during geomagnetic storms. The primary duties of the summer scholars will be to process and analyze ionospheric satellite data to identify ionospheric disturbances. Good computer skills for data processing are important. Background on ionospheric physics is desirable but not required.


Processing and analysis of ionospheric plasma data measured by satellites
Mentor: Chaosong Huang, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The ionosphere is a region consisting of charged particles, from ~100 to ~1000 km above the Earth’s surface. Dynamic processes at different spatial and temporal scales always exist, and the ionosphere is significantly disturbed during geomagnetic storms. Low-Earth orbit satellites, such as the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System (C/NOFS) satellites, provide in-situ measurements of ionospheric plasma density, temperature, electric field, and other parameters. The objective of this project is to study ionospheric disturbances during geomagnetic storms. The primary duties of the summer scholars will be to process and analyze ionospheric satellite data to identify ionospheric disturbances. Good computer skills for data processing are important. Background on ionospheric physics is desirable but not required.


Radio emission from the solar atmosphere
Mentor: Stephen M White, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

This project will study the relationship between the radio emission in the Sun's corona and other physical properties such as solar magnetic fields and emission from hot plasma at EUV wavelengths. The project will use images of the Sun obtained at a range of wavelengths from radio telescopes such as the Very Large Array and the Nobeyama Radioheliograph, as well as complementary satellite data.


Simulating high intensity laser plasma interactions
Mentor: Ryan Edward Phillips, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Upper-level Undergraduate

The ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) group is seeking young scientists and engineers to join the USPL team. Students will learn to use the laser propagation code gUPPE and execute targeted simulations on laser plasma interactions of interest to the USPL experimental and modeling team in the filamentation regime. Students will leverage the Air Force's world leading High Powered Computing (HPC) resources to accelerate simulation runtimes for at scale problems of interest and also perform data post-processing and data analysis.


Spacecraft Charging Instrumentation, Measurement and Simulation
Mentor: Dale Curtis Ferguson, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

At AFRL Kirtland, there are vacuum-plasma chambers to test for surface charging of components and materials, radiation chambers to test for deep-dielectric charging, and spacecraft surface charging simulation software. We desire applicants who wish to work on instrumentation and measurements with the chambers and/or simulation of surface charging with the Nascap-2K software. Theory and experiment are both essential to studies of spacecraft charging.


Spacecraft Charging Instrumentation, Measurement and Simulation
Mentor: Dale Curtis Ferguson, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

At AFRL Kirtland, there are vacuum-plasma chambers to test for surface charging of components and materials, radiation chambers to test for deep-dielectric charging, and spacecraft surface charging simulation software. We desire applicants who wish to work on instrumentation and measurements with the chambers and/or simulation of surface charging with the Nascap-2K software. Theory and experiment are both essential to studies of spacecraft charging.


Space Environment Studies, Investigating Ionospheric Variability
Mentor: Jonah Colman, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The Space Environment can have a major impact on technologies we all rely on. Satellite communication, Global positioning systems, even the electrical grid. The ionosphere is the layer of plasma around the earth created by solar radiation. As in the more familiar terrestrial environment systems we can separate the state of the Space Environment into climate and weather. Climate includes the large scale features of the environment, e.g. it's cold at nigh, it only snows here in the winter. Weather is the current state of the environment, e.g. it's 22 degrees outside, it's raining now. We will investigate climatological models of the ionosphere and compare them to measurements made here at Kirtland Air Force Base to try and capture the magnitude of ionospheric variability not captured by a climatology.


Space Environment Studies, Investigating Ionospheric Variability
Mentor: Jonah Colman, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: High School

The Space Environment can have a major impact on technologies we all rely on. Satellite communication, Global positioning systems, even the electrical grid. The ionosphere is the layer of plasma around the earth created by solar radiation. As in the more familiar terrestrial environment systems we can separate the state of the Space Environment into climate and weather. Climate includes the large scale features of the environment, e.g. it's cold at nigh, it only snows here in the winter. Weather is the current state of the environment, e.g. it's 22 degrees outside, it's raining now. We will investigate climatological models of the ionosphere and compare them to measurements made here at Kirtland Air Force Base and elsewhere to try and capture the magnitude of ionospheric variability not captured by a climatology.


Space Environment Studies, Investigating Ionospheric Variability
Mentor: Jonah Colman, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The Space Environment can have a major impact on technologies we all rely on. Satellite communication, Global positioning systems, even the electrical grid. The ionosphere is the layer of plasma around the earth created by solar radiation. As in the more familiar terrestrial environment systems we can separate the state of the Space Environment into climate and weather. Climate includes the large scale features of the environment, e.g. it's cold at nigh, it only snows here in the winter. Weather is the current state of the environment, e.g. it's 22 degrees outside, it's raining now. We will investigate climatological models of the ionosphere and compare them to measurements made here at Kirtland Air Force Base and elsewhere to try and quantify the magnitude of ionospheric variability not captured by a climatology.


Ultrashort Pulse Laser Research
Mentor: Andreas Schmitt-Sody, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) group is seeking motivated young scientists and engineers to join the USPL team. The research in the group is focused on studying the basic physics of nonlinear USPL propagation, filamentation, plasma generation and USPL matter interaction. These laser sources have the potential to be very important to both AF and DOD applications. The laboratory facilities at AFRL are state-of-the-art and are on the leading edge of femtosecond laser research.


Ultrashort Pulse Laser Research
Mentor: Andreas Schmitt-Sody, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) group is seeking motivated young scientists and engineers to join the USPL team. The research in the group is focused on studying the basic physics of nonlinear USPL propagation, filamentation, plasma generation and USPL matter interaction. These laser sources have the potential to be very important to both AF and DOD applications. The laboratory facilities at AFRL are state-of-the-art and are
on the leading edge of femtosecond laser research.