A plasma is an ionized gas, a gas into which sufficient energy is provided to free electrons from atoms or molecules and to allow both species, ions and electrons, to coexist.
Plasma is the fourth state of matter. Many places teach that there are three states of matter; solid, liquid and gas, but there are actually four. The funny thing about that is, that as far as we know, plasmas are the most common state of matter in the universe. They are even common here on earth. A plasma is a gas that has been energized to the point that some of the electrons break free from, but travel with, their nucleus. Gases can become plasmas in several ways, but all include pumping the gas with energy. A spark in a gas will create a plasma. A hot gas passing through a big spark will turn the gas stream into a plasma that can be useful. Plasma torches like that are used in industry to cut metals. The biggest chunk of plasma you will see is the sun. The sun's enormous heat rips electrons off the hydrogen and helium molecules that make up the sun. Essentially, the sun, like most stars, is a great big ball of plasma.
Contributors and Attributions
- Brian Kross, Chief Detector Engineer (Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education)