A Deep Dive into the Distribution Function: Understanding Phase Space Dynamics with Continuum Vlasov-Maxwell Simulations
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In collisionless and weakly collisional plasmas, the particle distribution function is a rich tapestry of the underlying physics. However, actually leveraging the particle distribution function to understand the dynamics of a weakly collisional plasma is challenging. The equation system of relevance, the Vlasov--Maxwell--Fokker--Planck (VM-FP) system of equations, is difficult to numerically integrate, and traditional methods such as the particle-in-cell method introduce counting noise into the distribution function. In this thesis, we present a new algorithm for the discretization of VM-FP system of equations for the study of plasmas in the kinetic regime. Using the discontinuous Galerkin (DG) finite element method for the spatial discretization and a third order strong-stability preserving Runge--Kutta for the time discretization, we obtain an accurate solution for the plasma's distribution function in space and time. We both prove the numerical method retains key physical properties of the VM-FP system, such as the conservation of energy and the second law of thermodynamics, and demonstrate these properties numerically. These results are contextualized in the history of the DG method. We discuss the importance of the algorithm being alias-free, a necessary condition for deriving stable DG schemes of kinetic equations so as to retain the implicit conservation relations embedded in the particle distribution function, and the computational favorable implementation using a modal, orthonormal basis in comparison to traditional DG methods applied in computational fluid dynamics. A diverse array of simulations are performed which exploit the advantages of our approach over competing numerical methods. We demonstrate how the high fidelity representation of the distribution function, combined with novel diagnostics, permits detailed analysis of the energization mechanisms in fundamental plasma processes such as collisionless shocks. Likewise, we show the undesirable effect particle noise can have on both solution quality, and ease of analysis, with a study of kinetic instabilities with both our continuum VM-FP method and a particle-in-cell method. Our VM-FP solver is implemented in the Gkyell framework, a modular framework for the solution to a variety of equation systems in plasma physics and fluid dynamics.