- This article is about plasma in the sense of an ionized gas. For other uses of the term, such as blood plasma, see plasma (disambiguation).
In physics and chemistry, a plasma is an ionized gas, and is usually considered to be a distinct phase of matter. "Ionized" in this case means that at least one electron has been removed from a significant fraction of the molecules. The free electric charges make the plasma electrically conductive so that it couples strongly to electromagnetic fields. This fourth state of matter was first identified by Sir William Crookes in 1879 and dubbed "plasma" by Irving Langmuir in 1928, because it reminded him of a blood plasma [Ref].
Plasmas are the most common phase of matter. The entire visible universe outside the Solar System is plasma, since all we can see are stars. Since the space between the stars is filled with a plasma, although a very sparse one (see interstellar and intergalactic medium), essentially the entire volume of the universe is plasma. In the Solar System, the planet Jupiter accounts for most of the non-plasma, only about 0.1% of the mass and 10-15 of the volume within the orbit of Pluto.
Commonly encountered forms of plasma include:
- Artificially produced
- Earth plasmas
- Space and astrophysical
- The Sun and other stars (which are plasmas heated by nuclear fusion)
- The solar wind
- The Interplanetary medium (the space between the planets)
- The Interstellar medium (the space between star systems)
- The Intergalactic medium (the space between galaxies)
- The Io-Jupiter flux-tube
- Accretion disks
- Interstellar nebulae
The term plasma is generally reserved for a system of charged particles large enough to behave collectively. Even a partially ionized gas in which as little as 1% of the particles are ionized can have the characteristics of a plasma (i.e. respond to magnetic fields and be highly electrically conductive).
In technical terms, the typical characteristics of a plasma are:
- Debye screening lengths that are short compared to the physical size of the plasma.
- Large number of particles within a sphere with a radius of the Debye length.
- Mean time between collisions usually is long when compared to the period of plasma oscillations.
Plasmas and their characteristics exist over a wide range of scales (ie. they are scaleable over many orders of magnitude). The following chart deals only with conventional atomic plasmas and not other exotic phenomena, such as, quark gluon plasmas:
|Typical plasma scaling ranges: orders of magnitude (OOM)|
|Characteristic||Terrestrial plasmas||Cosmic plasmas|
in metres (m)
|10-6 m (lab plasmas) to:|
102 m (lightning) (~8 OOM)
|10-6 m (spacecraft sheath) to|
1025 m (intergalactic nebula) (~31 OOM)
in seconds (s)
|10-12 s (laser-produced plasma) to:|
107 s (fluorescent lights) (~19 OOM)
|101 s (solar flares) to:|
1017 s (intergalactic plasma) (~17 OOM)
in particles per
1021 (inertial confinement plasma)
|1030 (stellar core) to:|
100 (i.e., 1) (intergalactic medium)
in kelvins (K)
|~0 K (Crystalline non-neutral plasma) to:|
108 K (magnetic fusion plasma)
|102 K (aurora) to:|
107 K (Solar core)
in teslas (T)
|10-4 T (Lab plasma) to:|
103 T (pulsed-power plasma)
|10-12 T (intergalactic medium) to:|
107 T (Solar core)
The defining characteristic of a plasma is ionization. Although ionization can be caused by UV radiation, energetic particles, or strong electric fields, (processes that tend to result in a non-Maxwellian electron distribution function), it is more commonly caused by heating the electrons in such a way that they are close to thermal equilibrium so the electron temperature is relatively well-defined. Because the large mass of the ions relative to the electrons hinders energy transfer, it is possible for the ion temperature to be very different from (usually lower than) the electron temperature.
The degree of ionization is determined by the electron temperature relative to the ionization energy (and more weakly by the density) in accordance with the Saha equation. If only a small fraction of the gas molecules are ionized (for example 1%), then the plasma is said to be a cold plasma, even though the electron temperature is typically several thousand degrees. The ion temperature in a cold plasma is often near the ambient temperature. Because the plasmas utilized in plasma technology are typically cold, they are sometimes called technological plasmas. They are often created by using a very high electric field to accelerate electrons, which then ionize the atoms. The electric field is either capacitively or inductively coupled into the gas by means of a plasma source, e.g. microwaves. Common applications of cold plasmas include plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition, plasma ion doping, and reactive ion etching.
A hot plasma, on the other hand, is nearly fully ionized. This is what would commonly be known as the "fourth-state of matter". The Sun is an example of a hot plasma. The electrons and ions are more likely to have equal temperatures in a hot plasma, but there can still be significant differences.
Next to the temperature, which is of fundamental importance for the very existence of a plasma, the most important property is the density. The word "plasma density" by itself usually refers to the electron density, that is, the number of free electrons per unit volume. The ion density is related to this by the average charge state of the ions through . (See quasineutrality below.) The third important quantity is the density of neutrals n0. In a hot plasma this is small, but may still determine important physics. The degree of ionization is ni / (n0 + ni).
Since plasmas are very good conductors, electric potentials play an important role. The potential as it exists on average in the space between charged particles, independent of the question of how it can be measured, is called the plasma potential or the space potential. If an electrode is inserted into a plasma, its potential will generally lie considerably below the plasma potential due to the development of a Debye sheath. Due to the good electrical conductivity, the electric fields in plasmas tend to be very small, although where double layers are formed, the potential drop can be large enough to accelerate ions to relativistic velocities and produce synchrotron radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays. This results in the important concept of quasineutrality, which says that, on the one hand, it is a very good approximation to assume that the density of negative charges is equal to the density of positive charges (), but that, on the other hand, electric fields can be assumed to exist as needed for the physics at hand.
The magnitude of the potentials and electric fields must be determined by means other than simply finding the net charge density. A common example is to assume that the electrons satisfy the Boltzmann relation, . Differentiating this relation provides a means to calculate the electric field from the density: .
It is, of course, possible to produce a plasma that is not quasineutral. An electron beam, for example, has only negative charges. The density of a non-neutral plasma must generally be very low, or it must be very small, otherwise it will be dissipated by the repulsive electrostatic force.
In astrophysical plasmas, Debye screening prevents electric fields from directly affecting the plasma over large distances (ie. greater than the Debye length). But the existence of charged particles causes the plasma to generate and be affected by magnetic fields. This can and does cause extremely complex behavior, such as the generation of plasma double layers, an object that separates charge over a few tens of Debye lengths. The dynamics of plasmas interacting with external and self-generated magnetic fields are studied in the academic discipline of magnetohydrodynamics.
In contrast to the gas phase
Plasma is often called the fourth state of matter. It is distinct from the three lower-energy phases of matter; solid, liquid, and gas, although it is closely related to the gas phase in that it also has no definite form or volume. There is still some disagreement as to whether a plasma is a distinct state of matter or simply a type of gas. Most physicists consider a plasma to be more than a gas because of a number of distinct properties including the following:
|Electrical Conductivity||Very low
|Independently acting species||One||Two or three
Electrons, ions, and neutrals can be distinguished by the sign of their charge so that they behave independently in many circumstances, having different velocities or even different temperatures, leading to new types of waves and instabilities, among other things
|Velocity distribution||Maxwellian||May be non-Maxwellian
Whereas collisional interactions always lead to a Maxwellian velocity distribution, electric fields influence the particle velocities differently. The velocity dependence of the Coulomb collision cross section can amplify these differences, resulting in phenomena like two-temperature distributions and run-away electrons.
Two-particle collisions are the rule, three-body collisions extremely rare.
Each particle interacts simultaneously with many others. These collective interactions are about ten times more important than binary collisions.
Complex plasma phenomena
Plasma may exhibit complex behaviour. And just as plasma properties scale over many orders of magnitude (see table above), so do these complex features. Many of these features were first studied in the laboratory, and in more recent years, have been applied to, and recognised throughout the universe. Some of these features include:
- Filamentation, the striations or "stringy things" seen in a "plasma ball", the aurora, lightning, and nebulae. They are caused by larger current densities, and are also called magnetic ropes or plasma cables.
- Double layers, localised charge separation regions that have a large potential difference across the layer, and a vanishing electric field on either side. Double layers are found between adjacent plasmas regions with different physical characteristics, and can accelerate ions and produce synchrotron radiation (such as x-rays and gamma rays).
- Birkeland currents, a magnetic-field-aligned electric current, first observed in the Earth's aurora, and also found in plasma filaments.
- Circuits. Birkeland currents imply electric circuits, that follow Kirchhoff's circuit laws. Circuits have a resistance and inductance, and the behaviour of the plasma depends on the entire circuit. Such circuits also store inductive energy, and should the circuit be disrupted, for example, by a plasma instability, the inductive energy will be released in the plasma.
- Cellular structure. Plasma double layers may separate regions with different properties such as magnetization, density, and temperature, resulting in cell-like regions. Examples include the magnetosphere, heliosphere, and heliospheric current sheet.
- Critical ionization velocity in which the relative velocity between an ionized plasma and a neutral gas, may cause further ionization of the gas, resulting in a greater influence of electomagnetic forces.
Plasmas may be usefully described with various levels of detail. However the plasma itself is described, if electric or magnetic fields are present, then Maxwell's equations will be needed to describe them. The coupling of the description of a conductive fluid to electromagnetic fields is known generally as magnetohydrodynamics, or simply MHD.
The simplest possibility is to treat the plasma as a single fluid governed by the Navier Stokes Equations. A more general description is the two-fluid picture, where the ions and electrons are considered to be distinct.
For some cases the fluid description is not sufficient. Kinetic models include information on distortions of the velocity distribution functions with respect to a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. This may be important when currents flow, when waves are involved, or when gradients are very steep.
Particle-in-cell (PIC) models include kinetic information by following the trajectories of a large number of individual particles. Charge and current densities are determined by summing the particles in cells which are small compared to the problem at hand but still contain many particles. The electric and magnetic fields are found from the charge and current densities with appropriate boundary conditions. PIC codes for plasma applications were developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1950's. Although often more calculationally intensive than alternative models, they are relatively easy to understand and program and can be very general.
Fundamental plasma parameters
All quantities are in Gaussian cgs units except temperature expressed in eV and ion mass expressed in units of the proton mass μ = mi / mp; Z is charge state; k is Boltzmann's constant; K is wavelength; γ is the adiabatic index; ln Λ is the Coulomb logarithm.
- electron gyrofrequency, the angular frequency of the circular motion of an electron in the plane perpendicular to the magnetic field:
- ion gyrofrequency, the angular frequency of the circular motion of an ion in the plane perpendicular to the magnetic field:
- electron plasma frequency, the frequency with which electrons oscillate when their charge density is not equal to the ion charge density (plasma oscillation):
- ion plasma frequency:
- electron trapping rate
- ion trapping rate
- electron collision rate
- ion collision rate
- Electron thermal de Broglie wavelength, approximate average de Broglie wavelength of electrons in a plasma:
- classical distance of closest approach, the closest that two particles with the elementary charge come to each other if they approach head-on and each have a velocity typical of the temperature, ignoring quantum-mechanical effects:
- electron gyroradius, the radius of the circular motion of an electron in the plane perpendicular to the magnetic field:
- ion gyroradius, the radius of the circular motion of an ion in the plane perpendicular to the magnetic field:
- plasma skin depth, the depth in a plasma to which electromagnetic radiation can penetrate:
- Debye length, the scale over which electric fields are screened out by a redistribution of the electrons:
- electron thermal velocity, typical velocity of an electron in a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution:
- ion thermal velocity, typical velocity of an ion in a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution:
- ion sound velocity, the speed of the longitudinal waves resulting from the mass of the ions and the pressure of the electrons:
- Alfven velocity, the speed of the waves resulting from the mass of the ions and the restoring force of the magnetic field:
- square root of electron/proton mass ratio
- number of particles in a Debye sphere
- Alven velocity/speed of light
- electron plasma/gyrofrequency ratio
- ion plasma/gyrofrequency ratio
- thermal/magnetic energy ratio
- magnetic/ion rest energy ratio
- Bohm diffusion coefficient
- transverse Spitzer resistivity
Fields of active research
- Plasma theory
- Plasmas in nature
- Plasma sources
- Plasma diagnostics
- Plasma applications
- Electric field screening
- List of plasma physicists
- Large Helical Device
- Important publications in plasma physics
- Plasmas: the Fourth State of Matter
- Plasma Science and Technology
- Plasma on the Internet comprehensive list of plasma related links.
- Introduction to Plasma Physics: a graduate level lecture course given by Richard Fitzpatrick
- An overview of plasma links and applications
- NRL Plasma Formulary online (or an html version)
- Plasma Coalition page
- Plasma Material Interaction
- How to build a Stable Plasmoid at One Atmosphere (requires pre-ignition)
- How to build a Stable Plasmoid with this Enhanced Generator (self-igniting)
- How to make a glowing ball of plasma in your microwave with a grape
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