What is Plasma Physics?

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What is plasma physics and why do I need to know?
The understanding and use of plasmas is entering a Golden Age. Profound new insights into the behavior of solar and stellar phenomenon, exciting advances in fusion energy research and development, and the technological applications of plasmas will play an increasing role in 21st century science and research. The world your students are growing into will greatly benefit from evolving plasma-related technologies and new discoveries in the basic behavior of plasmas.

So what is a plasma and what do plasma physicists do?
Although most students can name three states of matter (solid, liquid, gas), relatively few know a fourth state — the plasma state — exists and it makes up almost all of the visible universe. Lightning, the aurora borealis and some forms of lighting (neon and fluorescent) are just three examples of plasma — a glowing ionized gas with unique behavior. Plasma physicists study how plasma behaves. Their research provides data that leads to new answers to old problems.

How are plasmas used?
Scientists and engineers have utilized plasmas for many decades. Plasma is used for welding, sterilizing medical instruments, lighting homes, cleaning up pollution, purifying contaminated water and treating harmful wastes. A clear understanding of plasma science is essential for fusion energy research.

How do plasmas fit into my science curriculum?
APS-DPP activities support content in the following areas:

  • properties of heat, light and sound
  • properties of waves
  • the structure of matter
  • electric and magnetic field interactions with plasma
  • the nature of changes in matter
  • energy, force, and motion
  • how matter becomes energy during nuclear reactions
  • the electromagnetic spectrum
  • fusion processes in stars and the laboratory

Watch “Fusion Energy Explained” narrated by Arturo Dominquez, PhD from Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL)