Above: Hisham Ali.
Header Image: Plasma discharge from Ali's existing supersonic low-density RF plasma wind-tunnel facility.
Hisham Ali is pushing the limits of plasma physics and hypersonics in his lab on campus to advance a nationally important area of science and engineering.
Ali, an assistant professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies magnetohydrodynamics. It is the investigation of the magnetic properties and behavior of electrically conducting fluids, such as the plasmas generated during extremely high-speed flight – a critical area for hypersonic vehicles.
“It’s fluid mechanics, plasma physics, fluids interacting electrically. We’re specifically looking at what happens when a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere. There is a tremendous need for funding hypersonic research as a nation,” Ali said.
Ali’s team is currently building a plasma wind tunnel, a highly complex undertaking to conduct experimental research of the conditions space vehicles experience during atmospheric reentry.
“We have a unique opportunity. These kinds of facilities don’t come online very often. We here at CU Boulder as well as others in the outside scientific and engineering community are very excited,” Ali said.
As he and his team endeavor to complete construction and begin experiments in the plasma wind tunnel, they are also conducting mission design and computational trajectory work.
“It’s modeling, mission design, and trajectory work for a Neptune plasma-assisted aerocapture probe in addition to the work on the wind tunnel. We’re very busy,” Ali said.
The work is a culmination of sorts for Ali. Growing up, he decided early to become an aerospace engineer, but despite excelling in science and math it was not a sure thing.
“My parents emigrated from Sudan when I was a year old. They had earned doctorates in Sudan in veterinary medicine, but that didn’t carry over to the United States and they had to re-enroll in graduate school here. Both of my parents worked nights and weekends in fast food to support us for most of the 1990s while they completed their studies. When I earned scholarships to go to college, it was very helpful to us,” Ali said.
He successfully earned the National Achievement Scholarship, a college fellowship designed to increase opportunities for Black students. Ali said as an honor intended for specific groups, there were some challenges.
“People said it wasn’t fair because they thought the bar was lower for the Achievement Scholarship compared to the National Merit Scholarship,” Ali said. “They’re both very competitive, and then I also received the National Merit Scholarship. There’s sometimes a perception you’re not as good.”
He then attended the University of Alabama and participated in internships at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville. Ali enjoyed research, but was not sure if graduate school was for him.
“Thankfully, the people I knew at NASA encouraged me to apply to graduate school and to NASA graduate fellowships,” Ali said. “I also had a very supportive undergraduate research advisor at the University of Alabama. They told me I was good enough.”
Ali went on to Georgia Tech, where he earned his master’s and PhD in aerospace engineering and met his wife, who has a PhD of her own in biomedical engineering. They then came to Colorado so she could earn another doctorate in medicine at the CU Anschutz Campus. Ali worked for the Aerospace Corporation in Colorado Springs for a year before officially joining CU Boulder in 2022.
Ali said he also hopes to enhance the environment for other budding Black engineers during his time on campus and in the department.
“I had mentors who happened to be Black who said there’s a place for you. Not only is this for you, you’re needed here. I want to do that for others,” Ali said.