Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Gregory G. Howes


The study of low-frequency turbulence in magnetized plasmas is a difficult problem due to both the enormous range of scales involved and the variety of physics encompassed over this range. Much of the progress that has been made in turbulence theory is based upon a result from incompressible magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), in which energy is only transferred from large scales to small via the collision of Alfv ́n waves propagating oppositely along the mean magnetic field. Improvements in laboratory devices and satellite measurements have demonstrated that, while theories based on this premise are useful over inertial ranges, describing turbulence at scales that approach particle gyroscales requires new theory.

In this thesis, we examine the limits of incompressible MHD theory in describing collisions between pairs of Alfvén waves. This interaction represents the fundamental unit of plasma turbulence. To study this interaction, we develop an analytic theory describing the nonlinear evolution of interacting Alfv ́n waves and compare this theory to simulations performed using the gyrokinetic code AstroGK. Gyrokinetics captures a much richer set of physics than that described by incompressible MHD, and is well-suited to describing Alfvénic turbulence around the ion gyroscale. We demonstrate that AstroGK is well suited to the study of physical Alfvén waves by reproducing laboratory Alfvén dispersion data collected using the LAPD. Additionally, we have developed an initialization alogrithm for use with AstroGK that allows exact Alfvén eigenmodes to be initialized with user specified amplitudes and phases.

We demonstrate that our analytic theory based upon incompressible MHD gives excellent agreement with gyrokinetic simulations for weakly turbulent collisions in the limit that k ρi << 1. In this limit, agreement is observed in the time evolution of nonlinear products, and in the strength of nonlinear interaction with respect to polarization and scale. We also examine the effect of wave amplitude upon the validity of our analytic solution, exploring the nature of strong turbulence. In the kinetic limit where k⊥ ρi ≥ 1 where incompressible MHD is no longer a valid description, we illustrate how the nonlinear evolution departs from our analytic expression.

The analytic theory we develop provides a framework from which more sophisticated of weak and strong inertial-range turbulence theories may be developed. Characterization of the limits of this theory may provide guidance in the development of kinetic Alfvén wave turbulence.


Alfven Waves, AstroGK, Gyrokinetics, Magnetohydrodynamics, Plasma Turbulence


xviii, 188




Copyright 2012 Kevin Derek Nielson

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