Most of us were told somewhere in our educational experience that there are three states of matter--liquid, solid, and gas. The design of the atom allows atoms to combine in rigid lattices, tumble over each other, or float free away from each other. These balances of charge, buoyancy, gravity, and shape allow matter to have an incredible number of shapes and forms. There is still another state of matter that is not a liquid, a solid, nor a gas which is called plasma.
To understand what plasma is, think of the fact that electrons orbit the nucleus of the atom to give a pattern (shown in the article beginning on page 7) that we are all familiar with. As the electron goes around, centrifugal force pushes it away from the nucleus. The electrical attraction between the negative electron and the positive nucleus pulls it in. If you add energy to the atom, the electrons move faster pushing them away from the nucleus. If you add too much energy the electrons would move so fast that they would fly off leaving the nucleus by itself. If you had a whole bunch of atoms in this condition you would have lots of electrons floating around and lots of naked nucleii floating around also. This disassociated matter is called plasma.
On the earth, plasma is rare. The most familiar example is a florescent light where large electrical voltages tear the atoms apart and light is given off as the charged particles accelerate. We also see plasma in a lightning bolt or the Northern Lights. The Sun on the other hand, is a huge plasma due to its incredible heat. As astronomers study the sun they realize that the plasma state is what enables the Sun to generate energy in such a controlled and beneficial way for us, since all stars are plasma, plasma is the most common form of matter in the cosmos.
Mankind is finding all kinds of uses for plasma. Plasma is useful in medical applications because it sterilizes and cauterizes as it goes. Plasma rocket engines are being developed that can run on very simple fuels. There are other uses in industry to cut and melt and chemically alter materials.
The more we learn of the structure of the atom the more we see how its
design allows the cosmos to exist in a form that man can survive in.
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