What is plasma?

Discover the highly energised matter that powers life on Earth.

We’re all familiar with solids, liquids and gases, which are three fundamental states of matter. But although it’s not as well known, there’s actually a fourth state that’s more common than all of the others – plasma.

This state occurs when atoms of gas are packed with energy, enough for them to separate into positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. This makes plasma a great conductor of electricity and allows it to respond to magnetic forces, much unlike gas.

This phenomenon may sound strange, but we actually see these energetic particles every day here on Earth. During a lightning storm, for example, plasma is responsible for the beams of light we see flashing down from the sky. The massive current moving through the air energises atoms and turns them into plasma particles, which bump into each other and release light.

We also see plasma every time we look at the Sun. The high temperatures are constantly converting the Sun’s fuel – hydrogen and helium atoms – into positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons, making our local star the most concentrated body of plasma in the Solar System.

We see plasma particles every time we look up at the Sun or witness a bolt of lightning. Image credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos under license GFDL v1.2.

Discover more amazing science in the latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works, make sure you subscribe today!

You may also like:

How clean are your hands?

Could we ever run as fast as The Flash?

The good, the bad, and the ugly bacteria