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What is Plasma?

What is Plasma

Plasma cutters are so accessible and easy to use that we take the science behind them for granted. So, what is plasma, really?

Most of us learned in high school that there are three states of matter and as energy is applied to a substance it changes state from a solid to a liquid, to a gas. Well, that’s not where the story ends. If a gas becomes superheated, a fourth state of matter (plasma) can occur. When this happens, electrons become stripped from protons and become free. This allows plasma the potential to become electrically charged. Plasma will also produce and respond to magnetic fields. These properties of plasma make it very powerful, but also very controllable.

How Common is Plasma?

Despite being relatively unknown and misunderstood by most of us, plasma is actually very common. How common? 99.9% of all mass in the universe is plasma. It’s everywhere. As a matter of fact, Earth is one of only a handful of known planets where the other three states of matter even exist.

Examples of Plasma

Lightning

A lightning bolt is a large and powerful atmospheric electrostatic discharge which produces around a gigajoule of energy. That’s about enough to power the average US home for 9 days! Lightning is visible in the form of radiant heat created through the rapid disposition of electrons in the atmosphere.

Stars

Most stars are formed entirely of plasma. They are so hot that atomic bonds will not hold, and molecules remain ionized. Stars are the most powerful known examples of plasma, with the ability to project heat energy and electro-magnetic radiation for hundreds of millions of miles!

Neon & Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Neon and fluorescent light bulbs use a gas sealed inside a tube or coil which is excited by the introduction of alternating current to emit light. If a strong enough electro-magnetic field is present, these bulbs can even be illuminated without being plugged in!

Plasma Televisions

Plasma TVs have largely been replaced by newer LED models, but they were the pinnacle of picture quality in the early 2000s. They work by using a series of tiny red, green, and blue light cells which are essentially tiny plasma spheres.

Aurora Borealis

While still not fully understood, it is generally accepted that that the Northern Lights are caused by solar winds carrying energy which interact with the magnetic field found near the North Pole of Earth. This ionizes atmospheric gas and creates a beautifully colored plasma which is visible for hundreds of miles. There is also a Southern counterpart near the South Pole, however relatively fewer people live near the South Pole, so this event is lesser known.

Elmo’s Fire

St. Elmo’s fire is named after Saint Erasmus of Formia (a.k.a. Saint Elmo), the patron saint of sailors. It is a natural phenomenon when a tapered protrusion (often from a ship’s mast) reacts with nitrogen in the atmosphere under a very specific set of conditions to create a small blue corona of plasma.

Plasma Globe

Many of us have seen this toy as children without actually realizing what it was. A plasma globe is a glass sphere filled with various noble gases which has a high-voltage electrode placed conspicuously in the center. When voltage is applied, the gases become excited and electrical filaments form amidst the plasma between the electrode and the outer glass insulator. It was invented to none other than Nikola Tesla, who called it a “inert gas discharge tube”. If you are standing on the ground and touch one with your bare hand, the filament will become attracted.

Lightsabers

Although lightsaber science has a foundation in the Star Wars universe and not our own, according to Wookieepedia a lightsaber consists of a plasma blade emitted by a kyber crystal.

Plasma cutting torches use the plasma to conduct an electrical arc from an emitter to the workpiece where it transfers massive amounts of heat energy to a precise point to melt the material being cut. The plasma is typically swirled to create stability, just as a quarterback would throw a football. Think of a lightning bolt inside a tornado, all placed conveniently in the palm of your hand and ready to melt metal at the push of a button.

 

For more information on plasma cutting, take a look at ATTC’s selection of plasma cutting products.

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