Plasma mystery unlocked!

November 23rd, 2008 - 1:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Nov 23 (IANS) Canadian researchers claim to have developed a technique to get clues into the mystery of plasma - the most abundant form of matter in the universe.Unlike general matter in which negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons are bound by electromagnetic force to form a neutral atom, plasma is that state of matter which can have surplus of negative or positive charge.

Also called ionized (or charged) gas, plasma can be as common as in fluorescent light bulbs or exotic in the extreme, as a thermonuclear explosion.

The earth’s upper atmosphere is a plasma, as are lightning bolts and virtually all stars that light up the night sky and Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in our solar system.

Though scientists have found clues to the nature of general matter whose basic units called atoms comprise negatively charged electron tied to positively charged protons, they have no clues to the nature of plasma.

They have failed to understand how positive and negative charges can exist without recombining into one unit or atom.

They have tried to develop intricate mathematical theories to explain the plasma state, but have failed because plasmas are hot, complex and difficult to characterise either in the natural world or in the laboratory.

But now researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver claim to have found a way to create ultra-cold plasmas out of molecules, a weekend university statement said.

Starting with a gaseous sample cooled in a supersonic molecular beam, researchers led by chemistry department head Ed Grant have formed a plasma of nitric oxide that has ion and electron temperatures as cold as plasmas made from trapped atoms, the statement said.

These plasmas last 30 microseconds, it added.

“The ability to break out of the atom ‘trap’ is tremendously liberating and could lead to a whole new field of physics,” the statement said quoting Ed Grant.

“It’s amazing that our plasmas have sustained life at all,” he said.

“We think that the high charged particle density we create interferes with ion-electron recombination.”

Grant said further understanding of ultra-cold plasma on a molecular level could lead to new knowledge about gas planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in our solar system, white dwarf stars, thermonuclear fusion and X-ray lasers.

The technique has been published in the current issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

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