What Is Plasma & Why Does It Matter? 

Plasma science, the investigation of ionized gases and their interactions with materials, is a remarkably far-reaching discipline that is solving problems in space physics and astrophysics, materials science and engineering, atomic, molecular and optical physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and even agriculture.

The deep understanding of nature gained through basic plasma research is translating to important applications that are revolutionizing modern society. All of this is possible through cross-disciplinary collaborations, international cooperation, novel observing platforms, new instruments and diagnostic methods, and the combination of theory, computation, experiments, and data analysis.

What is Plasma?

Most of the matter with which we are familiar in everyday life exists in one of three states - solid, liquid, or gas. Plasmas, often called the fourth state of matter, are perhaps the most abundant form of matter, making up nearly 99.9 percent of the observable universe. A gas becomes a plasma when the addition of heat or other energy causes a significant number of atoms to release some or all of their electrons, a process called ionization. Thus, a plasma is an ‘ionized gas’ - a collection of electrically charged particles - that can carry electrical currents and respond to electric and magnetic fields. 

Stars including the sun, the space between stars, nebulae, and the space environment near Earth are primarily composed of hot plasma. Earth’s aurora and bolts of lightning are plasmas. On Earth, plasmas are created by people every day when they turn on fluorescent light bulbs, or in laboratory experiments such as nuclear fusion devices. 

Read more about the fascinating world of plasma physics and the story of its development in The Plasma Universe.
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The Impact of Plasma Science

The study of plasma allows us to understand and predict how the universe around us operates. Plasma physics is uncovering the inner workings of the Sun and stars, planetary ionospheres and magnetospheres, interstellar space, and fascinating astrophysical objects such as black holes and their jets, pulsars, magnetars, and neutron stars.  Plasma physics studies are answering questions such as:

  • How are magnetic fields generated in planets, stars, and galaxies?
  • How is this magnetic energy stored and released impulsively in solar eruptions, geomagnetic storms, and other explosive events?
  • Can life exist on exoplanets?

S5tL8r9ARCC33DShjLWh_CMOD -L.jpg Harnessing plasma to produce fusion energy in a nuclear fusion reactor will be one of the greatest achievements of humankind, providing an abundance of safe, carbon-free electricity that addresses climate change and energy sustainability. Photo Credit
Plasma science enables prediction of space weather events that can affect the electric power grid, onboard computers, and other instruments on spacecraft, GPS, and communication satellites, and humans in space, including human-flight to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Photo Credit
Plasma applications span from the trillion-dollar microelectronics fabrication industry enabled by plasma etching and deposition of materials to therapeutic benefits of plasma for wound healing and cancer treatment to lighting and displays, and even water purification. Photo Credit
Control of intense lasers interacting with plasmas is enabling a new generation of particle accelerators that could revolutionize X-ray imaging in medicine and industry and enable investigation of new quantum phenomena. Photo Credit: CERN