New pathways for nickel chemistry (Nature)

By: Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Using a light-activated catalyst, researchers have unlocked a new pathway in nickel chemistry to construct carbon-oxygen (C-O) bonds that would be highly valuable to pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.

“It was extraordinary to see the reaction go from zero to 91 percent yield just by adding a photocatalyst and switching on a light,” said David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and principal investigator of the work published on August 12 in the journal Nature.

C-O coupling reaction scheme

C-O coupling reaction scheme

The article reported the first general C-O cross-coupling reaction, which connects ring-shaped molecules, called aromatics, to alcohol-containing molecules, using a dual nickel-photoredox catalyst system. Extending nickel’s reach to C-O coupling reactions has great potential given the tremendous impact nickel chemistry has had on analogous C-C coupling reactions.

For the most part, these C-O cross-coupling reactions have been unattainable by traditional nickel catalysis. That’s because the final bonding-forming step—called reductive elimination—in which nickel excises itself to leave behind a C-O bond, is fundamentally unfavorable. By introducing a photocatalyst, the research team was able to remove a single electron from the key nickel intermediate to access an elusive oxidation state of nickel that can readily form the desired bond.

Using a photocatalyst to effectively expand the possible oxidation states of nickel has significant implications beyond this specific transformation. “We assume that it’s not just nickel chemistry that you can dramatically change, but other metals as well,” MacMillan said. “That’s very exciting position to be in.”

To confirm their understanding of how the catalysts worked together to promote the reaction, Valerie Shurtleff, a graduate student in the MacMillan lab and co-author on the paper, performed a series of mechanistic experiments.

Shurtleff synthesized a model nickel complex that mimicked the key bond-forming intermediate, a nickel compound bridging the two coupling partners. She found that without the presence of both light and photocatalyst, the complex was unable to form the product. Further electrochemical experiments confirmed that the model nickel complex was well within the range of molecules with which the photocatalyst could theoretically interact.

The new nickel-photocatalyst combination also offers a mild alternative to similar existing methods that employ palladium or copper catalysts and can access complementary coupling partners.

The MacMillan group has made many major contributions in the area of photoredox catalysis, but has only recently begun discovering the possibilities that arise from combining photoredox with other forms of catalysis, such as nickel. “There are so many different avenues to explore,” Shurtleff said. “We’re really just getting started.”

Read the abstract.

Terrett, J. A.; Cuthbertson, J. D.; Shurtleff, V. W.; MacMillan, D. W. C. “Switching on Elusive Organometallic Mechanisms with Photoredox Catalysis.” 2015, Nature.

This work was supported by financial support from the National Institute of General Medical Services (R01 GM093213-01).

Scientists propose an explanation for electron heat loss in fusion plasmas (Physical Review Letters)

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Elena Belova

PPPL Scientist Elena Belova
Photo Credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL

Creating controlled fusion energy entails many challenges, but one of the most basic is heating plasma – hot gas composed of electrons and charged atoms – to extremely high temperatures and then maintaining those temperatures. Now scientist Elena Belova of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and a team of collaborators have proposed an explanation for why the hot plasma within fusion facilities called tokamaks sometimes fails to reach the required temperature, even as researchers pump beams of fast-moving neutral atoms into the plasma in an effort to make it hotter.

The results, published in June in Physical Review Letters, could lead to improved control of temperature in future fusion devices, including ITER, the international fusion facility under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science (Office of Fusion Energy Sciences).

The researchers focused on the puzzling tendency of electron heat to leak from the core of the plasma to the plasma’s edge. “One of the largest remaining mysteries in plasma physics is how electron heat is transported out of plasma,” said Jon Menard, program director for PPPL’s major fusion experiment, the National Spherical Tokamak Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), which is completing a $94 million upgrade.

Belova hit upon a possible answer while performing 3D simulations of past NSTX plasmas on computers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), in Oakland, California. She saw that two kinds of waves found in fusion plasmas appear to form a chain that transfers the neutral-beam energy from the core of the plasma to the edge, where the heat dissipates. While physicists have long known that the coupling between the two kinds of waves – known as compressional Alfvén waves and kinetic Alfvén waves (KAWs) – can lead to energy dissipation in plasmas, Belova’s results were the first to demonstrate the process for beam-excited compressional Alfvén eigenmodes (CAEs) in tokamaks.

Her simulations showed that when researchers try to heat the plasma by injecting beams of energetic deuterium, a form of hydrogen, the beams excite CAE waves in the plasma’s core. Those waves then resonate with KAW waves, which occur primarily at the plasma’s edge. As a result, the energy is transported from the injection site deep within the plasma to the plasma’s edge.

“Originally, when scientists found that the electron temperature wouldn’t go up with increased beam power, everybody assumed that the electrons were getting heated at the plasma’s center and then were somehow losing that heat,” Belova said. “Our explanation is different. We propose that part of the beam energy goes into CAEs and then to KAWs. The energy then dissipates at the plasma’s edge.”

The simulations provided a broad perspective. “In simulations you can look everywhere in a plasma,” Belova said. “In the experiments, on the other hand, you are very limited in what and where you can measure inside the hot plasma.”

Belova’s findings reflect the growing collaboration between theoretical and experimental research at the Laboratory. “Her results uncover a novel loss mechanism for electron energy that could be important for NSTX-U plasmas,” said Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of the Theory Department at PPPL.

Belova plans to run more simulations to determine whether the mechanism she identified is the primary process that modifies the electron heating profile. She will also look for ways in which physicists can avoid this wave-induced change in the profile. In the meantime, she is driven by her desire to learn more physics. “We want to understand how these waves are excited by the beam ions,” she said, “and how to avoid them in the experiments.”

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit

Read the abstract.

Belova, E.V., N.N. Gorelenkov, E.D. Fredrickson, K. Tritz and N. A. Crocker. “Coupling of Neutral-Beam-Driven Compressional Alfvén Eigenmodes to Kinetic Alfvén Waves in NSTX Tokamak and Energy Channeling.” Physical Review Letters. Published June 29, 2015. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.015001


Study calculates the speed of ice formation (PNAS)

ice_cube_bannerBy Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

Researchers at Princeton University have for the first time directly calculated the rate at which water crystallizes into ice in a realistic computer model of water molecules. The simulations, which were carried out on supercomputers, provide insight into the mechanism by which water transitions from a liquid to a crystalline solid.

Understanding ice formation adds to our knowledge of how cold temperatures affect both living and non-living systems, including how living cells respond to cold and how ice forms in clouds at high altitudes. A more precise knowledge of the initial steps of freezing could eventually help improve weather forecasts and climate models, as well as inform the development of better materials for seeding clouds to increase rainfall.

The researchers looked at the process by which, as the temperature drops, water molecules begin to cling to each other to form a blob of solid ice within the surrounding liquid. These blobs tend to disappear quickly after their formation. Occasionally, a large enough blob, known as a critical nucleus, emerges and is stable enough to grow rather than to melt. The process of forming such a critical nucleus is known as nucleation.

To study nucleation, the researchers used a computerized model of water that mimics the two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen found in real water. Through the computer simulations, the researchers calculated the average amount of time it takes for the first critical nucleus to form at a temperature of about 230 degrees Kelvin or minus 43 degrees Celsius, which is representative of conditions in high-altitude clouds.

They found that, for a cubic meter of pure water, the amount of time it will take for a nucleus to form is about one-millionth of a second. The study, conducted by Amir Haji-Akbari, a postdoctoral research associate, and Pablo Debenedetti, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The main significance of this work is to show that it is possible to calculate the nucleation rate for relatively accurate models of water,” said Haji-Akbari.

Cubic ice

Cubic ice is made of double-diamond cages, each of which contains 14 water molecules arranged into seven interconnected six-member rings.

Hexagonal ice

Hexagonal ice is made of hexagonal cages, each of which contains 12 water molecules arranged into two six-membered rings that sit on top of each other.

In addition to calculating the nucleation rate, the researchers explored the origin of the two different crystalline shapes that ice can take at ambient pressure. The ice that we encounter in daily life is known as hexagonal ice. A second form, cubic ice, is less stable and can be found in high-altitude clouds. Both ices are made up of hexagonal rings, with an oxygen atom on each vertex, but the relative arrangement of the rings differs in the two structures.

“When water nucleates to form ice there is usually a combination of the cubic and hexagonal forms, but it was not well-understood why this would be the case,” said Haji-Akbari. “We were able to look at how the shapes of ice blobs change during the nucleation process, and one of the main findings of our work is to explain how a less stable form of ice is favored over the more stable hexagonal ice during the initial stages of the nucleation process.” (See figure below.)

Debenedetti added, “What we found in our simulations is that before we go to hexagonal ice we tend to form cubic ice, and that was very satisfying because this has been reported in experiments.” One of the strengths of the study, Debenedetti said, was the innovative method developed by Haji-Akbari to identify cubic and hexagonal forms in the computer simulation.

Computer models come in handy for studies of nucleation because conducting experiments at the precise temperatures and atmospheric conditions when water molecules nucleate is very difficult, said Debenedetti, who is Princeton’s Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and Dean for Research. But these calculations take huge amounts of computer time.

Haji-Akbari found a way to complete the calculation, whereas previous attempts failed to do so. The technique for modeling ice formation involves looking at computer-simulated blobs of ice, known as crystallites, as they form. Normally the technique involves looking at the crystallites after every step in the simulation, but Haji-Akbari modified the procedure such that longer intervals of time could be examined, enabling the algorithm to converge to a solution and obtain a sequence of crystallites that eventually led to the formation of a critical nucleus.

Model of ice nucleation

Using a computer model to explore how water molecules connect and nucleate into ice crystals, the researchers found that two types of ice compete for dominance during nucleation: cubic ice (blue) which is less stable, and hexagonal ice (red), which is stable and forms the majority of ice on Earth. Nucleation occurs when water molecules come together to form blobs (pictured above), which grow over time (left to right). Eventually hexagonal ice wins out (not shown). The researchers found that adding new cubic features onto an existing crystalline blob gives rise to nuclei that are more spherical, and hence more stable. In contrast, adding hexagonal features tends to give rise to chains of hexagonal cages that make the nucleus less spherical, and hence less stable.

Even with the modifications, the technique took roughly 21 million computer processing unit (CPU) hours to track the behavior of 4,096 virtual water molecules in the model, which is known as TIP4P/Ice and is considered one of the most accurate molecular models of water. The calculations were carried out on several supercomputers, namely the Della and Tiger supercomputers at the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering; the Stampede supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center; the Gordon supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center; and the Blue Gene/Q supercomputer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Debenedetti noted that the rate of ice formation obtained in their calculations is much lower than what had been found by experiment. However, the computer calculations are extremely sensitive, meaning that small changes in certain parameters of the water model have very large effects on the calculated rate. The researchers were able to trace the discrepancy, which is 10 orders of magnitude, to aspects of the water model rather than to their method. As the modeling of water molecules improves, the researchers may be able to refine their calculations of the rate.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant CHE-1213343) and the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University.

Read the abstract: Haji-Akbari, Amir and Pablo G. Debenedetti. 2015. Direct calculation of ice homogenous nucleation rate for a molecular model of water. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. Published online August 3, 2015.

Images courtesy of Amir Haji-Akbari, Princeton University.

After extreme drought, forests take years to rebuild CO2 storage capacity (Science)

Drought image, provided by William AndereggBy Joe Rojas-Burke, University of Utah, and Morgan Kelly, Princeton University

In the virtual world of climate modeling, forests and other vegetation are assumed to quickly bounce back from extreme drought and resume their integral role in removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, that assumption may be far off the mark, according to a new Princeton University-based study published in the journal Science.

An analysis of drought impacts at forest sites worldwide found that living trees took an average of two to four years to recover and resume normal growth rates — and thus carbon-dioxide absorption — after a drought ended, the researchers report. Forests help mitigate human-induced climate change by removing massive amounts of carbon-dioxide emissions from the atmosphere and incorporating the carbon into woody tissues.

The finding that drought stress sets back tree growth for years suggests that Earth’s forests are capable of storing less carbon than climate models have calculated, said lead author William Anderegg, a visiting associate research scholar in the Princeton Environmental Institute.

“This really matters because future droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change,” said Anderegg, who will start as an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah in Aug. 2016. “Some forests could be in a race to recover before the next drought strikes. If forests are not as good at taking up carbon dioxide, this means climate change could speed up.”

Anderegg and colleagues measured the recovery of tree-stem growth after severe droughts at more than 1,300 forest sites around the world using records kept since 1948 by the International Tree Ring Data Bank. Tree rings provide a history of wood growth as well as carbon uptake from the surrounding ecosystem. They found that a few forests exhibited growth that was higher than predicted after drought, most prominently in parts of California and the Mediterranean.

In the majority of the world’s forests, however, trunk growth took two to four years on average to return to normal. Growth was about 9 percent slower than expected during the first year of recovery, and remained 5 percent slower in the second year. Long-lasting effects of drought were most prevalent in dry ecosystems, and among pines and tree species with low hydraulic safety margins, meaning these trees tend to keep using water at a high rate even as drought progresses, Anderegg said.

How drought causes such long-lasting harm remains unknown, but the researchers offered three possible answers: Loss of foliage and carbohydrate reserves during drought may impair growth in subsequent years; pests and diseases may accumulate in drought-stressed trees; or lasting damage to vascular tissues could impair water transport.

The researchers calculated that if a forest experiences a delayed recovery from drought, the carbon-storage capacity in semi-arid ecosystems alone would drop by about 1.6 metric gigatons over a century — an amount equal to about 25 percent of the total energy-related carbon emissions produced by the United States in a year. Yet, current climate models do not account for this massive carbon remnant of drought, Anderegg said.

“In most of our current models of ecosystems and climate, drought effects on forests switch on and off like a light,” Anderegg said. “When drought conditions go away, the models assume a forest’s recovery is complete and close to immediate. That’s not how the real world works.”

Droughts that include high temperatures—as opposed to only low precipitation—are a documented scourge to tree growth and health, Anderegg said. During the 2000-2003 drought in the American Southwest, for instance, the decrease in precipitation was comparable to earlier droughts, but the temperature was hotter than the long-term average by 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The higher temperatures really seemed to make the drought lethal to vegetation where previous droughts with the same rainfall deficit weren’t,” Anderegg said.

“Drought, especially the type that matters to forests, is about the balance between precipitation and evaporation, and evaporation is very strongly linked to temperature,” he said. “The fact that temperatures are going up suggests quite strongly that the western regions of the United States are going to have more frequent and more severe droughts, which would substantially reduce forests’ ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere.”

Anderegg co-authored the study with Princeton colleagues Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Adam Wolf, an associate research scholar in ecology and evolutionary biology; and Elena Shevliakova, a senior climate modeler in ecology and evolutionary biology and in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) located on Princeton’s Forrestal Campus.

The research also included collaborators from Northern Arizona University, University of Nevada–Reno, Pyrenean Institute Of Ecology, University of New Mexico, Arizona State University, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Read the abstract.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant number DEB EF-1340270) and the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship program.

New chemistry makes strong bonds weak (JACS)

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Researchers at Princeton have developed a new chemical reaction that breaks the strongest bond in a molecule instead of the weakest, completely reversing the norm for reactions in which bonds are evenly split to form reactive intermediates.

Published on July 13 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the non-conventional reaction is a proof of concept that will allow chemists to access compounds that are normally off-limits to this pathway. The team used a two-component catalyst system that works in tandem to selectively activate the strongest bond in the molecule, a nitrogen-hydrogen (N-H) bond through a process known as proton-coupled electron transfer (PCET).

Catalytic alkene carboamination enabled by oxidative proton-coupled electron transfer

Catalytic alkene carboamination enabled by oxidative proton-coupled electron transfer

“This PCET chemistry was really interesting to us. In particular, the idea that you can use catalysts to modulate an intrinsic property of a molecule allows you to access chemical space that you couldn’t otherwise,” said Robert Knowles, an assistant professor of chemistry who led the research.

Using PCET as a way to break strong bonds is seen in many essential biological systems, including photosynthesis and respiration, he said. Though this phenomenon is known in biological and inorganic chemistry settings, it hasn’t been widely applied to making new molecules—something Knowles hopes to change.

Given the unexplored state of PCET catalysis, Knowles decided to turn to theory instead of the trial and error approach usually taken by synthetic chemists in the initial stages of reaction development. Using a simple mathematical formula, the researchers calculated, for any pair of catalysts, the pair’s combined “effective bond strength,” which is the strength of the strongest bond they could break. Because both molecules independently contribute to this value, the research team had a high degree of flexibility in designing the catalyst system.

When they tested the catalyst pairs in the lab, the researchers observed a striking correlation between the “effective bond strength” and the reaction efficiency. While effective bond strengths that were lower or higher than the target N-H bond strength gave low reaction yields, the researchers found that matching the strengths promoted the reaction in very high yield.

“To see this formula actually working was really inspiring,” said Gilbert Choi, a graduate student in the Knowles lab and lead author on the work. Once he identified a successful catalyst system, he explored the scope of the reaction and its mechanism.

Proposed catalytic cycle

Proposed catalytic cycle

The researchers think that the reaction starts with one of the catalysts, a compound called dibutylphosphate, tugging on a hydrogen atom, which lengthens and weakens the N-H bond. At the same time, the other catalyst, known as a light-activated iridium complex, targets the weakened bond and plucks off one electron from the two-electron bond, slicing it down the middle.

Once the bond is split, the reactive nitrogen intermediate goes on to form a new carbon-nitrogen bond, giving rise to structurally complex products. This finding builds on work the Knowles lab published earlier this year, also in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, on a similar reaction that used a more sensitive catalyst system.

Their research has laid a solid foundation for PCET catalysis as a platform for developing new reactions. “My sincere view is that ideas are a lot more valuable than reactions,” Knowles said. “I’m optimistic that people can use these ideas and do things that we hadn’t even considered.”

Read the abstract: Choi, G. J.; Knowles, R. R. “Catalytic Alkene Carboamination Enabled by Oxidative Proton-Coupled Electron Transfer.2015, J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP.

This work was supported by Princeton University and the National Institutes of Health (R01 GM113105).

X marks the spot: Researchers confirm novel method for controlling plasma rotation to improve fusion performance (Physical Review Letters)

Representative plasma geometries, with the X-point location circled in red. (Reprinted from T. Stoltzfus-Dueck et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 245001, 2015. Copyright 2015 by the American Physical Society.)

Representative plasma geometries, with the X-point location circled in red. (Reprinted from T. Stoltzfus-Dueck et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 245001, 2015. Copyright 2015 by the American Physical Society.)

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Rotation is key to the performance of salad spinners, toy tops, and centrifuges, but recent research suggests a way to harness rotation for the future of mankind’s energy supply. In papers published in Physics of Plasmas in May and Physical Review Letters this month, Timothy Stoltzfus-Dueck, a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), demonstrated a novel method that scientists can use to manipulate the intrinsic – or self-generated – rotation of hot, charged plasma gas within fusion facilities called tokamaks. This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

Such a method could prove important for future facilities like ITER, the huge international tokamak under construction in France that will demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a source of energy for generating electricity. ITER’s massive size will make it difficult for the facility to provide sufficient rotation through external means.

Rotation is essential to the performance of all tokamaks. Rotation can stabilize instabilities in plasma, and sheared rotation – the difference in velocities between two bands of rotating plasma – can suppress plasma turbulence, making it possible to maintain the gas’s high temperature with less power and reduced operating costs.

Today’s tokamaks produce rotation mainly by heating the plasma with neutral beams, which cause it to spin. In intrinsic rotation, however, rotating particles that leak from the edge of the plasma accelerate the plasma in the opposite direction, just as the expulsion of propellant drives a rocket forward.

Stoltzfus-Dueck and his team influenced intrinsic rotation by moving the so-called X-point – the dividing point between magnetically confined plasma and plasma that has leaked from confinement – on the Tokamak à Configuration Variable (TCV) in Lausanne, Switzerland. The experiments marked the first time that researchers had moved the X-point horizontally to study plasma rotation. The results confirmed calculations that Stoltzfus-Dueck had published in a 2012 paper showing that moving the X-point would cause the confined plasma to either halt its intrinsic rotation or begin rotating in the opposite direction. “The edge rotation behaved just as the theory predicted,” said Stoltzfus-Dueck.

A surprise also lay in store: Moving the X-point not only altered the edge rotation, but modified rotation within the superhot core of the plasma where fusion reactions occur. The results indicate that scientists can use the X-point as a “control knob” to adjust the inner workings of fusion plasmas, much like changing the settings on iTunes or a stereo lets one explore the behavior of music. This discovery gives fusion researchers a tool to access different intrinsic rotation profiles and learn more about intrinsic rotation itself and its effect on confinement.

The overall findings provided a “perfect example of a success story for theory-experiment collaboration,” said Olivier Sauter, senior scientist at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and co-author of the paper.

Along with the practical applications of his research, Stoltzfus-Dueck enjoys the purely intellectual aspect of his work. “It’s just interesting,” he said. “Why do plasmas rotate in the way they do? It’s a puzzle.”

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Read the abstract.

Stoltzfus-Dueck, A. N. Karpushov, O. Sauter, B. P. Duval, B. Labit, H. Reimerdes, W. A. J. Vijvers, the TCV Team, and Y. Camenen. “X-Point-Position-Dependent Intrinsic Toroidal Rotation in the Edge of the TCV Tokamak.” Physical Review Letters 114, 245001 – Published 17 June 2015.

Researchers correlate incidences of rheumatoid arthritis and giant cell arteritis with solar cycles (BMJ Open)

Solar storm

Coronal mass ejection hurling plasma from the sun. (Image credit: NASA)

By John Greenwald, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

What began as a chat between husband and wife has evolved into an intriguing scientific discovery. The results, published in May in BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) Open, show a “highly significant” correlation between periodic solar storms and incidences of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and giant cell arteritis (GCA), two potentially debilitating autoimmune diseases. The findings by a rare collaboration of physicists and medical researchers suggest a relationship between the solar outbursts and the incidence of these diseases that could lead to preventive measures if a causal link can be established.

RA and GCA are autoimmune conditions in which the body mistakenly attacks its own organs and tissues. RA inflames and swells joints and can cause crippling damage if left untreated. In GCA, the autoimmune disease results in inflammation of the wall of arteries, leading to headaches, jaw pain, vision problems and even blindness in severe cases.

Inspiring this study were conversations between Simon Wing, a Johns Hopkins University physicist and first author of the paper, and his wife, Lisa Rider, deputy unit chief of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the National Institutes of Health, and a coauthor. Rider spotted data from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, showing that cases of RA and GCA followed close to 10-year cycles. “That got me curious,” Wing recalled. “Only a few things in nature have a periodicity of about 10-11 years and the solar cycle is one of them.”

Wing teamed with physicist Jay Johnson of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a long-time collaborator, to investigate further. When the physicists tracked the incidence of RA and GCA cases compiled by Mayo Clinic researchers, the results suggested “more than a coincidental connection,” said Eric Matteson, chair of the division of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic, and a coauthor. This work drew upon previous space physics research supported by the DOE Office of Science.

The findings found increased incidents of RA and GCA to be in periodic concert with the cycle of magnetic activity of the sun. During the solar cycle, dramatic changes that can affect space weather near Earth take place in the sun. At the solar maximum, for example, an increased number of outbursts called coronal mass ejections hurl millions of tons of magnetic and electrically charged plasma gas against the Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. This contact whips up geomagnetic disturbances that can disrupt cell phone service, damage satellites and knock out power grids. More importantly, during the declining phase of the solar maximum high-speed streams develop in the solar wind that is made up of plasma that flows from the sun. These streams continuously buffet Earth’s magnetosphere, producing enhanced geomagnetic activity at high Earth latitudes.

The research, which tracked correlations of the diseases with both geomagnetic activity and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) solar radiation, focused on cases recorded in Olmsted County, Minnesota, the home of the Mayo Clinic, over more than five decades. The physicists compared the data with indices of EUV radiation for the years 1950 through 2007 and indices of geomagnetic activity from 1966 through 2007. Included were all 207 cases of GCA and all 1,179 cases of RA occurring in Olmsted County during the periods and collected in a long-term study led by Sherine Gabriel, then of the Mayo Clinic and now dean of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Correlations proved to be strongest between the diseases and geomagnetic activity. GCA incidence — defined as the number of new cases per capita per year in the county — regularly peaked within one year of the most intense geomagnetic activity, while RA incidence fell to a minimum within one year of the least intense activity. Correlations with the EUV indices were seen to be less robust and showed a significantly longer response time.

The findings were consistent with previous studies of the geographic distribution of RA cases in the United States. Such research found a greater incidence of the disease in sections of the country that are more likely to be affected by geomagnetic activity. For example, the heaviest incidence lay along geographic latitudes on the East Coast that were below those on the West Coast. This asymmetry may reflect the fact that high geomagnetic latitudes — areas most subject to geomagnetic activity — swing lower on the East Coast than on the opposite side of the country. While Washington, D.C., lies just 1 degree farther north than San Francisco geographically, for example, the U.S. capital is 7 degrees farther north in terms of geomagnetic latitude.

Although the authors make no claim to a causal explanation for their findings, they identify five characteristics of the disease occurrence that are not obviously explained by any of the currently leading hypotheses. These include the east-west asymmetries of the RA and GCA outbreaks and the periodicities of the incidences in concert with the solar cycle. Among the possible causal pathways the authors consider are reduced production of the hormone melatonin, an anti-inflammatory mediator with immune-enhancing effects, and increased formation of free radicals in susceptible individuals. A study of 142 electrical power workers found that excretion of melatonin — a proxy used to estimate production of the hormone — was reduced by 21 percent on days with increased geomagnetic activity.

Confirming a causal link between outbreaks of RA and GCA and geomagnetic activity would be an important step towards developing strategies for mitigating the impact of the activity on susceptible individuals. These strategies could include relocating to lower latitudes and developing methods to counteract direct causal agents that may be controlled by geomagnetic activity. For now, say the authors, their findings warrant further investigations covering longer time periods, additional locations and other autoimmune diseases.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

This work was funded from NIH grants (NIAMS R01 AR046849, NIA R01 AG034676). This research was supported in part by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This work has also benefited from the works funded by NSF grants (ATM-0802715, AGS-1058456, ATM09002730, AGS1203299), NASA grants (NNX13AE12G, NNH09AM53I, NN09AK63I, NNH11AR07I), and DOE contract (DE-AC02-09CH11466).

Read the abstract

Wing, Simon; Rider, Lisa G.; Johnson, Jay R.; Miller, Frederick W.; Matteson, Eric L.; Crowson, Cynthia S.; Gabriel, Sherine E. “Do solar cycles influence giant cell arteritis and rheumatoid arthritis incidence?” BMJ Open, May 2015