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plasma

Plasma is a form of matter in which many of the electrons wander around freely among the nuclei of the atoms. Plasma has been called the fourth state of matter, the other three being solid, liquid and gas.

Normally, the electrons in a solid, liquid, or gaseous sample of matter stay with the same atomic nucleus. Some electrons can move from atom to atom if an electrical current flows in a solid or liquid, but the motion occurs as short jumps by individual electrons between adjacent nuclei. In a plasma, a significant number of electrons have such high energy levels that no nucleus can hold them.

An atom that has lost some of its electrons, thereby attaining an electric charge, is an ion. When a gas is subjected to heat or an electric field, some of its atoms become ions, and the gas is said to be ionized. An ionized gas, unlike a gas in its normal condition, can conduct electrical current to a limited extent. If the heat or electric field becomes extreme, many of the atoms become ions. The resulting super-ionized gas is a plasma, which can conduct a large and sustained electric current.

The behavior and properties of plasmas have aroused interest and creative work among scientists and engineers. Applications include electric lamps, lasers, medical devices, energy converters, water purifiers and flat-panel video displays (see plasma display). About 99% of the visible universe is formed of plasma.

This was last updated in March 2017

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