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Energy transfer through Alfvén waves in solar system plasmas (Advert ref: STFC23/EE/MPEE/WATT)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Prof Clare Watt  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The space in our solar system is home to a tenuous but highly energetic plasma. A host of different electromagnetic waves permeate this space, exchanging energy and momentum with the charged particles of the plasma. This project aims to significantly further our knowledge of a fundamental wave-particle interaction between Alfvén waves, electrons and ions through numerical experiments and observations. 

We are inspired by new observations from NASA Parker Solar Probe, as well as heritage observations from the auroral zones around Earth and the outer planets. All these observations indicate the importance, and universality, of Alfvén waves as a means of redistributing energy in space plasma. In the solar wind, Alfvén wave heating promises to be a vital component of energisation of the new-born solar wind near the Sun. Above planetary aurora, Alfvén waves are a key auroral energisation mechanism. The underlying physics of the wave-particle interaction is understood in idealised scenarios, but our current kinetic numerical models require updating to quantify important processes in real solar system plasma environments.

You will have the opportunity to build upon a successful drift-kinetic plasma model [see publications below] to investigate the wave particle interaction in detail through numerical experiments (simulations). Our original work focussed on the wave interaction with the electrons, and you will investigate methods to extend these kinetic models to include the ion response. You will compare the results from your new numerical experiments to a range of different observations from NASA and ESA missions, to investigate the action of Alfvén waves in different environments. The universality of the Alfvén wave – plasma interaction provides multiple opportunities for you to further our understanding of space plasma physics in a range of different contexts.

We welcome applicants with a background in physics, applied mathematics, or other related disciplines. Prior experience in scientific computing or plasma physics is a benefit, but we will provide you with the requisite training to gain all the skills you need to do your project. Your supervisors have a wealth of experience in numerical modelling and analysis of spacecraft observations to assist you to complete your PhD. Our research group provides a welcoming and supportive research environment with a wide range of stimulating research in solar physics, the solar wind, magnetospheres and ionospheres as well as comets. There are a range of seminars, journal clubs and other group activities to support you to grow as an independent researcher. You will get the opportunity to attend summer schools in space plasma physics in the UK and Europe to further your subject-specific knowledge, and we will enable you to travel to international conferences and workshops to present your findings, expand your research network and be inspired by new perspectives.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student. Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

You will join a strong and supportive research team. To help better understand the aims of the CDT and to meet the PhD supervisors, we are hosting a day-long event on campus on Monday 9th January 2023.

At that event, there will be an opportunity to discuss your research ideas, meet potential PhD supervisors, as well as hear from speakers from a variety of backgrounds (academia, industry, government, charity) discussing both STFC and data science as well as their personal paths and backgrounds. Click here for details.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note:

You must include the relevant advert reference/studentship code (e.g. STFC23/…) in your application.

You do not need to submit a research proposal for the proposed project, since the project is already defined by the supervisor. If you have your own research idea and wish to pursue that, then this is also possible - please indicate this on your application (if this is the case, then please include a research proposal of approximately 300 words).

We offer all applicants full guidance on the application process and on details of the DTP. For informal enquiries, email Professor James McLaughlin (Northumbria: [Email Address Removed]). Please contact the Principal Supervisor of the project(s) [Email Address Removed] for project-specific enquiries.

Deadline for applications: 31st January 2023

Start Date: 1st October 2023

Funding Notes

The studentship supports a full stipend, paid for 3.5 years at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year), full tuition fees and a Research Training and Support Grant (for conferences, travel, etc).


Watt, C. E. J. and Rankin, R. (2009) Electron trapping in shear Alfvén waves that power the aurora. Physical Review Letters, 102. 045002. ISSN 0031-9007 doi:
L. D. Woodham and R. T. Wicks and D. Verscharen and J. M. TenBarge and G. G. Howes (2021), The Astrophysical Journal, 912 (2), 101, doi: 10.3847/1538-4357/abed51
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