What is Plasma?

The Fourth State of Matter


Plasma has often been called the “fourth state of matter,” and rightly so.  Heating a solid eventually melts it into a liquid.  Adding more heat or energy makes the liquid boil, creating a gas.  If even more energy is added, some of the gas’s electrons escape from the atom, forming a plasma.  A plasma is a mixture of ions and electrons.




Plasma move around like a regular gas but also can be affected by electric and magnetic fields.  If set up carefully, plasmas can be used to do many incredibly useful things!





Applications
Electric Propulsion:  Plasma engines are highly efficient devices for moving satellites around in orbit.  Choosing electric propulsion over other systems drastically reduces the satellite mass, making launches less expensive.

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A 6 kW Hall thruster during testing at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory>

Computer Chips:  Every computer chip is made using plasmas.  The only way for the tiny wires and transistors to be created is with the ions in a plasma.  Every year the chips get smaller and faster, all thanks to plasma.

Power:  The sun is just a giant ball of plasma and its reaction provides energy for our solar system.  Scientists are trying to harness the power of the sun on earth as an incredibly cheap and safe type of renewable energy.

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The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion experiment currently under construction in France.

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