The IDEA (and events) Leading to the AAAPT

At the 1983 Spring College on Plasma Physics held at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, a group of scientists from developing countries met in the evenings to discuss about the difficulties faced in trying to start experimental research. What was needed were small plasma devices that could be built, on which fruitful and sustained research could be carried out in their home institutes. Various ideas were discussed and the ideas were boiled down to the glow discharge, the linear pinch, the electromagnetic shock tube and the plasma focus.

In 1984 a proposal was made to various international agencies summarized by an Invited Paper by S Lee presented at the International Conference on Physics for Development held at the ICTP, Trieste, Italy 8-12 October 1984. The proposal was to use the facilities and resources of an existing group in a developing country to prepare a program to transfer its total research technology in a specific topic to another group in the region having an interest and commitment in the specific subject area offered.

The proposal  [since published in S.Lee. Research Transfer as an Educational Process- A Model and some Experience. J Moscow Physical Soc (Series B) "Physics in Higher Education" Russia (1995) 1:99-126] covered the identification of the host centre which needed to have the experience, technical infrastructure and willingness. Identification of participants was also important. The proposed participants needed to have a strong Physics and technical background and have the backing of the home institute to build up the project for several years AFTER the training programme.

The role of the Centre was also carefully defined.  The Centre would identify a useful facility modelled on its own experience and expertise, It would plan a breakdown of the facility into its basic technical sub-systems, (e.g. see Fig 1) and plan a detailed programme for the participants to acquire the expertise and technology and the components of each of these sub-systems. The Centre would run an intensive training programme, provide the follow-up equipment including shipping, and then follow-up help or the facilities to be set up in the home institute.

The First Tropical College on Applied Physics 26 Dec 1983 to 14 January 1984 directed by S Lee held at the University of Malaya with 34 participants had as its major activity 2-weeks of intensive hands-on laboratory work and numerical experiments on electromagnetic shock tube, plasma focus, glow discharge and lasers. This intensive hands-on activity synergizing laboratory and numerical experimental work sets the tone for the rigours and standards of the AAAPT collaboration programmes. The unique combination of 2 weeks of locally organized structured hands-on research experience followed by 1 week of lectures by international experts resulted in a book “Laser and Plasma Technology” ISBN 9971-978-27-X (1985), World Scientific, Singapore.

On the recommendations of UM VC Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, the United Nations University (UNU) agreed to fund a training programme. Rector Dr. Soedjatmoko added a further dimen­sion when he stated in a communication: "We .…. have strong reasons to believe that plasma physics will be one of the major tech­nologies of the future in developing as well as industrialised countries. We find great merit in the argument that developing countries should begin now to experiment with and develop modest plasma systems in order to acquire prac­tical knowledge and skills to better employ technologies based on plasma physics once major breakthroughs permit the utilization for the production of energy as well as for other applications."

UNU Training Programme in Plasma and Laser Technology

As the program’s initiator and director, in early 1985 S Lee conducted numerous site visits to selected institutions, during which 28 short-listed candidates—about half with PhDs— were interviewed including at 1985 Spring College, ICTP. Eight candidates from six countries (Dr M A Eissa (Egypt), Dr S Sapru (India),  S Mulyodrono, Suryadi and Widdi Usada (Indonesia), Dr A V Gholap (Nigeria), M Zakaullah (Pakistan) and Dr Augustine J Smith (Sierra Leone) were selected and eventually awarded UNU Fellowships.


Site Visits to PPNY (Indonesia), Quaid-i-Azam University (Pakistan) and AEC Cairo and Al Azhar University (Egypt).

In October a six month UNU Training Programme in Plasma and Laser Technology started at the University of Malaya. For the first three months an intensive and comprehensive programme of lectures and experiments on existing facilities and devices was carried out. These included pulsed electronic modules, power supplies, glow discharge, electromagnetic shock tube, plasma focus, computation packages on circuit and plasma dynamics; and various laser systems. During this period the Fellow also carried out system planning, design and construction and development of all the sub-systems that he needed for the device that he has chosen to install back at his home institute. Most of the Fellows chose the plasma Focus for its ability to produce wide-ranging intense plasma conditions and the challenge of developing a simple device capable of enabling research in nuclear fusion. For a practical low-cost yet effective plasma focus we started with a simple model that led to the design of a practical compact device based on a single capacitor as the pulsed power source.

“…We were excited by the prospect of studying nuclear fusion in an affordable tabletop device like the plasma focus. We modeled it and came up with a design that required us to purchase equipment no more expensive than a fast discharge capacitor and a rotary pump for the vacuum system. That economy was of paramount importance: Neither the UNU nor the home institutes would pay for follow-up equipment. All the other parts of the facility—including a high voltage charger, a high-precision triggering system, and such diagnostic instrumentation as neutron detectors and a nanosecond laser shadowgraphic system—would be built with readily available materials and components. For example, a transformer from an ordinary television set was used. The 250-kg device cost about US$5000 and became portable when placed on a rack and trolley. Still, six sets of the low-cost, portable nuclear-fusion facility would cost US$30 000, not including freight and several oscilloscopes that some fellows needed. And there was no provision for follow-up equipment. We started a contingency fund for those purposes. [Sing Lee & Chiow San Wong “Initiating and Strengthening Plasma Research in Developing Countries; Physics Today (USA), pg 31-36; May 2006]”.


In the next month, the development, assembly and testing of the first version of the UNU/ICTP PFF were carried out. It was during this phase that the programme was visited by Professor Abdus Salam, Director of the ICTP, on 20 Jan 1986. After seeing the activities Abdus Salam on the spot offered to provide the missing brick in the structure- $15,000 USD- funds which eventually proved enough for the bulk of the follow-up equipment.


With funds secured, in the following six weeks there was a race against time, a period of intense activity, a time when the machine workshop at the Physics Department operated day and night, manufacturing the parts needed for six sets of UNU/ICTP PFF; followed by the assembly and testing of each set. Each set was assembled by its ‘owner’, tested for vacuum tightness, tested for voltage holding and current conduction and then for full operation. Full operational tests include focussing characteristics in various gases, and finally in deuterium with fusion neutrons detected by a paraffin-wax moderated silver activation counter. Six sets were thus assembled and tested, one after another since there was only one capacitor and one rotary pump.

By end of March 1986, reports and preparation for shipment of equipment were completed and some research papers were presented at the Second Tropical College on Applied Physics (17 March-5 April 1996). Six research papers were written and eventually published, including 2 in international journals. (One of these papers:  S. Lee, T.Y. Tou, S.P. Moo, M.A. Elissa, A.V. Gholap, K.H.  Kwek, S. Mulyodrono, A.J. Smith, Suryadi, W.Usada, M. Zakaullah.  A simple facility for the teaching of plasma dynamics and plasma nuclear fusion.  Amer J. Phys., USA (1988), 56: 62-68 is now among the top 3 most highly cited plasma focus papers). Dr Walter Shearer represented the UNU in a ceremony in early April 1986 at which the equipment, in 7 consignments (6 UNU ICTP PFF, 1 nitrogen laser) over 1000kg, was handed over to the Fellows and then to the company arranging the air-freight. During this handing over ceremony S Lee stressed that the success of the programme will depend on the work achieved by the Fellows back at the home institutes in the years to come.

In 1988 a second (UNU)/ICTP Training Programme (6 month) was conducted during which a Sequenced Nitrogen Laser was invented. The start of this Training Programme was timed to coincide with the Third Tropical College on Applied Physics and the Formation of the AAAPT. 

Inaugural Meeting of the AAAPT

The AAAPT was formed at an Inaugural Meeting on 7 June 1998 in Kuala Lumpur during the Third Tropical College on Applied Physics and the Second (UNU)/ICTP Training Programme on Plasma and Laser Technology. The Office of External Activities of the ICTP which was a sponsor for the TTC and the Second TP provided additional funds for the attendance of 4 key delegates who were eventually elected as Vice Presidents of the AAAPT Council. The IM was convened by S Lee and M P Srivastava was elected as Protem Chairman. The Convenor briefed the Meeting on the General Purpose and Motivations for the proposed AAAPT, the scientific research lines, activities and modalities. These were embodied in the Constitution of the AAAPT which was duly adopted with the formation of the AAAPT.


The Inaugural Meeting elected Professor Lee Sing (Malaysia) as the Foundation President with 4 Vice Presidents Prof T El Khalafy, Prof G Murtaza, Prof M P Srivastava and Prof Tsai Shih Tung representing Egypt, Pakistan, India and the People’s Republic of China respectively. The Secretariat comprised Prof Lee Sing, Assoc Prof Moo Siew Pheng (Vice President), Assoc Prof Wong Chiow San (Hon Sec) and Assoc Prof Chew Ah Chuan (Hon Treasurer). The composition of the Council remained unchanged through another 3 elections (1991, 1995,1998) except that Prof Tsai Shih Tung passed away in 1996 and was replaced by Prof Li Yin-an (P R China).

Sixteen Institutions from 12 Asian and African countries were represented at the IM. These 16 Institutions became the Founder Members of the AAAPT. By 1 June 1993 the membership list had grown to 30 Institutions from 19 countries.