PHYS 480: Introduction to Plasma Physics



Plasma physics is an important subject for a large number of research areas, including space physics, solar physics, astrophysics, controlled fusion research, high-power laser physics, plasma processing, and many areas of experimental physics. The primary goal of this course is for the students to learn the basic principles and main equations of plasma physics, at an introductory level, with emphasis on topics of broad applicability.

A plasma may be generally defined as any statistical collection of mobile charged particles. Thus, statistical physics and electrodynamics provide the fundamental basis for the physics of plasmas. An undergraduate course in classical electrodynamics (such as PHYS 302) is the only prerequisite for the course; relevant aspects of statistical physics and mechanics are reviewed or introduced as needed.

The required text for the course is Plasma Dynamics by R. O. Dendy. This book is chosen because it contains a nice balance between mathematical formulations and physical principles, it is clearly written, and it uses an appealing logical organization of the subject which provides an excellent framework for a first course in plasma physics. The well-known text Introduction to Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion by F. F. Chen is a recommended text for the course, and in many ways it complements and reinforces material covered in Dendy's book.

The course begins with a description of various types of plasmas and a discussion of some basic plasma parameters, such as the Debye length and the plasma frequency. Following a discussion of charged particle motion in electromagnetic fields, progressively more detailed models of plasmas are presented, starting with a dielectric description of cold plasma and moving on to the magnetohydrodynamic and kinetic descriptions. Additional topics may be added as time allows. Students are required to give a presentation to the class on a plasma physics topic related to the course.

Course Instructor

Anthony Chan (Professor)
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Herman Brown Hall 364
Phone: 713-348-2531

Office Hours:

I am available at most times during the week, but I recommend emailing or phoning me to confirm that I will be in the office.

General Information

Course Prerequisite: PHYS 302 Classical Electrodynamics, or equivalent

Credit: 3 semester hours

Meeting Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:30pm-3:45pm

Classroom: BRK (Brockman Hall) 103

Format: A lecture course with problem sets, a midterm exam (in-class), student presentations, and a final exam (scheduled).


Required: Plasma Dynamics, R. O. Dendy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.

Recommended: Introduction to Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, second edition, F. F. Chen, Plenum Press, 1984.

Homework and Grades

Grading Weights: Homework 40%
Midterm Exam 20%
Class Presentation 10%
Final Exam 30%
I plan to assign a homework set every week or so, usually due within one week of assignment at the beginning of class. Homework sets will be distributed in class and they will also be available from the PHYS 480 web page.

Homework Policy: Students are encouraged to discuss the problems with their classmates and with the instructor, but they must write up their homework solutions independently. Of course, you must not copy anyone else's solution.

Late Policy: The grade for late homework will be multiplied by a decaying exponential with a time constant of five days. Late homework must be emailed directly to the grader, with a CC to the instructor; the date and time of the email will be used to calculate the late penalty.

Class Presentation: A presentation on some aspect of plasma physics related to PHYS 480. To be given near the end of the semester, on a topic chosen by the student and approved by the instructor.

Students with Disabilities

Any student with a disability requiring accomodations in this course is encouraged to contact the instructor after class or during office hours. Additionally, students will also need to contact Disability Support Services in the Allen Center.

Course Content (Tentative)

  1. Introduction
    • Definition of a plasma
    • Electromagnetic units
    • Classification of plasmas, the n-T diagram
    • A brief review of classical electrodynamics and vector calculus

  2. Basic Plasma Characteristics
    • The electron plasma frequency
    • The Debye length
    • Electrostatic plasma waves
    • Coulomb collisions

  3. Motion of a Charged Particle in Magnetic Fields
    • Constant uniform magnetic field
    • Constant uniform magnetic field with non-magnetic forces
    • Guiding center motion in nonuniform magnetic fields

  4. Waves in a Cold Plasma
    • General formulation
    • Waves in a cold unmagnetized plasma
    • The dielectric tensor for a cold magnetized plasma
    • Waves in a cold magnetized plasma

  5. Magnetohydrodynamic Description of Plasma
    • What is magnetohydrodynamics?
    • The MHD equations
    • General properties of ideal MHD plasmas
    • MHD equilibrium
    • MHD waves
    • MHD stability
    • MHD shocks

  6. Kinetic Description of Plasma
    • The Vlasov equation
    • Connections to fluid theories
    • Vlasov theory of electrostatic plasma waves
    • Landau damping
    • The Fokker-Planck equation and binary Coulomb collisions

Back to Home Page