Students and Faculty Collaborate on Physics Research

Posted on January 19th, 2012 by

Professor of Physics Chuck Niederriter (far right) is one of several faculty members in the Physics department conducting research with Gustavus students.

One of the many benefits of attending a private, residential, liberal arts institution like Gustavus Adolphus College is the personal attention students receive from world-class faculty members due to an 11 to 1 student to faculty ratio.

Gustavus students build close relationships with their professors during their four years on the hill and those relationships often lead to students and faculty members collaborating on cutting-edge research and scholarly work.

The Gustavus Physics Department is one of the leaders in this area as the department has taken advantage of grant money from the National Science Foundation to purchase instrumentation and build research laboratories that allow for unique research opportunities for Gustavus students.

Here is a sampling of some of the work currently taking place in the department:

Solar Panels and Water Fountains

What do solar panels and water fountains have to do with one another? Sophomores Troy Seberson and Nicole Ball, along with Professor of Physics Chuck Niederriter are currently conducting research with 175 solar panels.

“The water fountains around campus require pumps that use a lot of energy,” Seberson said. “We are utilizing the solar panels by hooking the pumps up to them so that the pumps can run on free energy from the sun.”

First, Seberson and Ball are researching the dependence of the power generated by the solar panels with respect to the angle of the panels, and the sun’s altitude. They will be creating their own computer program to assist them with this research.

The second part of their research involves figuring out how much power they will need to supply with the panels in order for the fountains to work properly.

Deciding how to hook the panels up to the pumps, how many to use, where to put the panels, and how to deliver the energy are questions that Serberson, Ball, and Niederriter are currently exploring.

Trapping Ions

Senior Brandon Furey has been working on a research project with Assistant Professor of Physics Jessie Petricka in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Together, the pair is assembling a linear Paul ion trap which uses electric fields to trap molecular ions, much like a mass spectrometer.

Gustavus senior Brandon Furey in Professor Jessie Petricka's lab.

“In order for the ions to remain stable in the trap for any length of time, the system is put under vacuum to remove background gases that could interact with the ions,” Furey said. “We have our ion trap at a pressure of a billionth of an atmosphere and we do this using two vacuum pumps.”

The first pump lowers the pressure to a thousandth of atmospheric pressure, and the second is a turbopump that brings the pressure a million times lower. Once a low enough pressure is reached, Furey and Petricka use a high-powered pulsed laser to blast a target of Strontium fluoride to produce ions.

“The electric fields to trap the ions are produced by high-frequency and high-amplitude voltages applied to a quadrupole and endcap assembly,” Furey said. “By turning off the electric field, the trapped ions then disperse and some of them strike the detector producing a signal we can see.”

Furey has also developed computer programs to find the different voltages and frequencies that result in stable, trapped ions, as well as plotting the trajectories of those ions in the trap.

Down the road, Petricka plans to use laser cooling to further slow down the trapped ions to a temperature very near absolute zero in order to study quantum mechanical effects. Further applications of ion traps include their use as mass spectrometers, atomic clocks, quantum computers, and in high energy physics.

Acoustics Lab Research

Professor of Physics Tom Huber is working with several students in his acoustics lab on research involving the vibration of cantilevers with the use of a laser vibrometer.

Senior Nathaniel Beaver is one of Huber’s student research partners. Beaver’s research involves clamping a thin, rectangular strip of brass at one end and then pointing a high-frequency speaker at the brass to make it vibrate. He then points a laser at the strip of brass and then analyzes the reflected laser light to see what frequencies it’s vibrating at.

Professor Tom Huber in his acoustics lab.

“Later on, I’m going to see how the vibrations change when a chunk of the cantilever is cut out,” Beaver said. “This could have applications in industry. For example, if a hard drive suspension is damaged, that will affect the way that it vibrates.”

Senior John Schmidt also works with Huber in the acoustics lab, studying macro and micro cantilever acoustics and excitation.

“In my project, I analyzed the characteristic vibrational modes of a macro scale cantilever when it was vibrating both in water and air,” Schmidt said.

The experiments in water were performed at the Mayo Clinic, while the experiments in air were performed at Gustavus in the acoustics lab.

The experimental results were matched to an analytical model and also to a model that Schmidt made in COMSOL Multiphysics.

“As part of my project this January, I will be studying the effects on the vibrational frequencies of a cantilever when it is damaged (as Nathaniel is performing experimentally) in COMSOL and also will be installing a water tank and underwater ultrasound transducer in the acoustics lab.”

Temperature Control

You may not know it, but there is a geothermal loop installed outside of Olin Hall that takes advantage of the nearly constant year-round temperature of a natural reservoir eight feet underground to cool and heat the building.

To take advantage of this constant temperature, a heat pump is used to pump heat into the reservoir in the summer to cool the building, and vice versa in the winter in to heat the building.

“One of the contributions we are making in this area is to determine if a geothermal loop causes the ground temperature to change or if it remains constant,” senior Amy Audette said. “We needed to decide which temperature and moisture sensors to use, then mount them on pipes which were installed underground near the loop for future research on the reservoir.”

“The part of the project that I am working on currently is the data loggers, which will read the temperatures of the thermistors and, therefore, the temperature around the ground at fixed distances from the geothermal loop,” Audette said.

Physics and Swarming Behavior

Gustavus senior Amy Loreen and first-year student Briana Mork are currently working with Professor of Physics Paul Saulnier to study swarming behavior in nature.

Anyone who has observed a flock of birds swirl as a coordinated unit across the sky, or a school of fish flash in synchrony through the water, is aware of the behavioral aspects of animal aggregations.

Sometimes these aggregations are temporary, such as birds congregating in a noisy flock on a birdfeeder and then scattering when the food has been depleted. Others are more long lasting, such as the herds of caribou that migrate across the Arctic.

“All of these aggregations have one thing in common,” Saulnier said. “The formation of the aggregation is the result of the collective behaviors of the individuals. Such swarms may, at first, appear to be random but they do in fact contain subtle patterns that are the result of the behavioral characteristics of the individuals comprising the swarms.

The goal of the work being conducted by Loreen and Mork is to use the observed large scale patterns of the swarm to infer the behavioral characteristics of the individuals making up the aggregation.

“This knowledge will be of value to resource managers and ecologists working with grouped organisms, such as schooling fish, flocking birds, or migratory mammals,” Saulnier said.

F.W. Olin Hall

The Gustavus Physics Department

The Gustavus Physics Department typically graduates between 12 and 18 majors each year, which places Gustavus in the top 15 undergraduate institutions in the United States for the number of physics graduates per year.

Data has shown that around 75 percent of Gustavus physics alumni go on to graduate school in physics or engineering.

The department has state-of-the-art equipment for research and teaching and is housed in F.W. Olin Hall, which was constructed in 1991.

For more information about the Gustavus Physics Department, go online to or contact Department Chair Paul Saulnier at


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