Contact: Esther Eppele

Sr. Web Editor & Project Manager

Michigan Engineering

Communications & Marketing

(734) 615-7396

3214 SI-North

John Foster | Faculty

John Foster

Professor, Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences

2915 Cooley



    Plasma science for exploring deep space

    John Foster (U-M PhD Applied Physics ’96) has a photo of the crew from the original Star Trek TV series pinned to a bulletin board in his office.

    ‘That’s one of the reasons that I got interested in space exploration,” said Foster, pointing to the photo. “Honestly, what kid didn’t want to go into space after watching Star Trek?”

    It isn’t just Star Trek – diagrams of the Space Shuttle, a framed poster of the International Space Station and other space-related images and books cover his office. Unlike most other kids of the Star Trek generation, Foster made space and getting there his life’s work.

    In 2006, Foster left the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) after eight years as a Space Plasma Propulsion engineer and came to the University of Michigan to continue his research and train the next generation of space and plasma enthusiasts. Currently, Foster is working in two important plasma fields: space plasma propulsion and environmental plasma science.

    In conjunction with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, Foster and his team are engineering the latest in plasma thruster design for the future in space exploration.

    For the first time Foster and his team were able to map where the electrons are trapped in the magnetic circuit used in ion engines. These trapped electrons can free more electrons from the molecules in a gas to produce the ions that are ultimately accelerated to produce thrust.

    “Right here at the University of Michigan we are building a large ion engine – it is above state-of-the-art technology. U-M is definitely playing a key role in space plasma propulsion research,” said Foster.

    The second area where Foster is focusing his research is Environmental Plasma Science. He is partnering with the National Science Foundation on the purification of water using plasmas and also plasma medical applications.

    “Plasma can be used in important medical procedures. For example when skin is exposed to plasma it heals much faster, which is important for diabetic wound management. Plasma has also been shown to be effective in treating cancer. What we need to figure out are the right dosages, because there is a sweet spot between not enough and too much plasma, which can be dangerous,” said Foster.

    Foster also notes that he is collaborating with NASA on research in plasma water purification and sterilization processes as well.

    “We observed, for the first time, the interaction of a streamer discharge with a bubble in water. A streamer is like a human-made lightning stroke. This streamer, however, propagates in water. We observed the streamer travel through the water and force plasma formation in the bubble. A goal of our research is to make plasma in bubbles immersed in water for the purpose of water purification,” explained Foster.

    In addition to his research, Foster teaches undergraduate and graduate classes. Over the last year, he was proud to see four of his PhD candidates earn their degrees.

    “Plasma research has so many implications for bettering our world,” said Foster. “It satisfies my need to help people and make a difference in space exploration, our health and the environment.”

    From Winter 2014 NERS Notes

    Short Bio


    University of Michigan
    PhD Applied Physics ’96

    Jackson State University
    BS Physics ’91

    Research Interests

    Low-temperature plasmas, plasma physics issues regarding advanced space propulsion, plasma diagnostics, processing plasmas, space and atmospheric plasma phenomena, and modeling of plasma phenomena; environmental plasma processing

    Plasma science is a highly interdisciplinary field whose primary subject matter is ionized gas. My research focus is on understanding and applying plasma science to real world problems. I am particularly fascinated with space propulsion and as such particular emphasis is focused on space related plasma projects. Beyond space propulsion, I am also deeply interested in improving our environment through use of plasma-based remediation technologies. The Laboratory will pay particular attention to those applications that protect the environment and improve the quality of life in developing countries. In addition to these focus areas, the lab will also pursue research opportunities in processing plasma applications, energy conversion and energy production.


    • NASA Special Achievement and Performance Awards (1999-2006)
    • NTA Physicist of the Year (2003)
    • NASA LERCIP Mentor of the Year (2004)
    • Black Engineer of the Year Special Recognition Award (2005)
    • Emerald Awards Most Promising Engineer Award (2005)
    • Nuclear Engineering Faculty Teaching Award (2008)
    • NASA Faculty Fellow Award (2010, 2011, 2012-2013 ,2014)
    • UM NERS Outstanding Achievement Award (2014)



    • 2006-present: Associate Professor, Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences; Materials Science & Engineering
    • 1998-2006: Senior Research Engineer, NASA Glenn Research Center
    • 1997-1998: Post-doctoral fellow, NSF Engineering Research Center for Plasma-Aided
    • Manufacturing, University of Wisconsin-Madison


    • Member of American Physical Society
    • Member of IEEE
    • Member of NSBP
    • Senior Member AIAA
    • Member of the Electric Propulsion Technical Working Committee
    • Member of IEEE PSAC Technical Working Committee (term ended 2013)
    • Member of NRC Plasma Committee
    • Member of DOE FESAC
    • NSF proposal reviewer; DOE Fellowship reviewer; DOE Proposal Reviewer
    • Journal Reviewer (Physics of Plasma, TPS, Applied Phys D, Surface Coat, AIAA, Plasma Sources Science and Tech., RSI, Nuclear Instruments Methods)
    • Session Organizer (AIAA , IEEE)