Physics Journal Club offers talks for everyone

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The Elvey Building is home to the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, which Sean Counihan used in his research on power grid blackouts. Counihan presented his research at the Physics Journal Club meeting on Friday Oct. 21 at 3:45 p.m. in the Globe Room of the Elvey building. Jessica Herzog/ Sun Star

UAF student Sean Counihan, a senior physics student, is studying how to prevent blackouts in the power grid. His research is one of the many physics topics presented at Physics Journal Club meetings which happen every Friday.

On Oct. 21, Counihan presented his research “Optimization of the Power Grid.” He is trying to figure out if there are ways to reduce the risks of costly power grid failure in the form of blackouts.

Counihan is looking at two power grids, one with 16 regions and another with eight regions. Regions contain nodes which represent houses, businesses or generators and are connected by lines representing power lines, he said.

Counihan manipulates the reliability of the lines between regions and has found that more reliable lines actually don’t have less risk of blackout than less reliable lines.

Counihan calculates the risk of blackouts by multiplying the cost of a blackout with a normalized probability for a group of blackouts, he said. He uses the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, a high-performance computing unit, to analyze the probabilities. He is able to determine blackout size, cost of the blackout and what can be done to create the best configuration of the grid and ultimately reduce blackout events.

More computational work needs to be done, he said, but the research is a work in progress.

“I can definitely not give enough credit to the number of people who have worked on this project,” Counihan said. “Lots of information is there, and I’m looking at a very small part of it.”

Counihan will present a poster describing his research at the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress in San Francisco. It is a national conference occurring every four years.

David Newman is a professor and organizer of the UAF Physics Journal Club talks along with Chung-Sang Ng, associate professor. Talks are held every Friday at 3:45 p.m. in the Globe Room, Elvey Building. Newman studies fusion plasma physics and complex systems, while Ng studies space plasma physics.

The Journal Club is not actually a club, but an informal style seminar series that has been happening at UAF for at least 4 decades according to Newman.

“It’s kind of a hodgepodge of topics and styles,” he said.

The purpose of the talks is to educate students and faculty about any topic of interest to the physics audience, Newman said. They allow UAF’s small physics department to have informative lectures despite lacking the funding to bring in speakers from elsewhere every week like other college physics lecture series do. Faculty, grad students, and the occasional undergraduate student will discuss their research or journal articles they have read, hence the name Journal Club. Lecturers from outside Alaska will speak if they are in Fairbanks or if funding is available.

It can be very hard to find speakers, but the website is updated the week of the talk with the speaker’s name and abstract, Newman said.

Some lectures may be inaccessible for people who aren’t physics majors or affiliated with the physics field. However, students and the public are certainly welcome and encouraged to come if they see a lecture that interests them, Newman said.

The Journal Club lecture schedule can be accessed online.

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