Physics Research by AU Alumni, Professor Published on National Site

Augustana professor, alumni publish physics research

The combined experimental and theoretical study helps explain how a strong-field ionization process occurs in small hydrocarbon molecules.

Research findings by an Augustana physics professor and AU alumni are featured in Scientific Reports, a nationally recognized online repository for life, physical, chemical, applied science and clinical research.

The article, titled "The Importance of Rydberg Orbitals in Dissociative Ionization of Small Hydrocarbon Molecules in Intense Laser Fields," is based on research conducted by a team that includes seven former Augustana students: Dr. Kelsie Betsch ’05, Tim Burwitz ’14, Bethany Jochim ’11, Dr. Nora Kling ’05, Jacob Mahowald ’16, Dylan Schmitz, and Lesyk Voznyuk ’15; as well as Dr. Eric Wells, professor of physics at Augustana.

We caught up with Dr. Wells and Dr. Drew Alton, chair of the physics department at Augustana, to learn more about the research and what the findings mean. 


Harold E. Edgerton's "Bullet through Apple." From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum"Bullet Through Apple" by Harold E. Edgerton, from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Q.  You've said that since its invention, high speed photography has been used to study events that are too fast for the human eye to register. How does this research relate to high speed photography? 

A. From settling a bet about how fast horses gallop to Harold Edgerton’s iconic photograph of a bullet slicing through an apple, high speed photography measurements have captured the interest of scores of people.

Today, ultrafast science continues to advance, enabling researchers to investigate processes in atoms and molecules at timescales that rival the intrinsic electronic and atomic motions in these basic systems.

Measurements with femtosecond (0.000000000000001 second) and even tens of attoseconds (0.000000000000000001 second) resolution are made possible by current laser technology.

A foundational step in the creation of these attosecond laser pulses is strong-field ionization, in which electrons are removed from atoms or molecules by a laser pulse which has an electric field that can exceed the size of the electric field between the protons and electrons in an atom.

Researchers from Augustana University worked with scientists from Kansas State University and Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich to publish this combined experimental and theoretical study that helps explain how this strong-field ionization process occurs in small hydrocarbon molecules.

Q. What was the key finding from the study?

A. The study showed that for certain orientations of the molecules with respect to the laser field, the electrons are driven into loosely bound arrangements that makes electron removal (ionization) by the laser field relatively easy. The results may help enable attosecond pulse generation and also assist in using laser pulses to control chemical reactions.

Q. What can you tell us about the collaborative aspects of this research?

A. This study really illustrates how the Augustana physics department leverages off-campus collaborations to provide forefront undergraduate research experiences within the context of a highly personalized education that includes a strong liberal-arts core.

"Undergraduate research is an essential part of the physics culture here at Augie. Nearly all of our graduates leave with research experience."

— Dr. Drew Alton
Physics Department Chair

Besides the longstanding collaboration with the J.R. Macdonald Laboratory at Kansas State University, Augustana University is a member of the nuclear physics PHENIX collaboration and the Darkside particle astrophysics collaboration.

The research described in the Scientific Reports article was supported by the United States National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, as well as the German Science Foundation via the cluster of excellence Munich-Center for Advanced Photonics.