Plasma is often called the “Fourth State of Matter”, the other three being solid, liquid and gas. A plasma is a distinct state of matter containing a significant number of electrically charged particles, a number sufficient to affect its electrical properties and behavior. In addition to being important in many aspects of our daily lives, plasmas are estimated to constitute more than 99 percent of the visible universe.
In an ordinary gas each atom contains an equal number of positive and negative charges; the positive charges in the nucleus are surrounded by an equal number of negatively charged electrons, and each atom is electrically “neutral”. A gas becomes a plasma when the addition of heat or other energy causes a significant number of atoms to release some or all of their electrons. The remaining parts of those atoms are left with a positive charge, and the detached negative electrons are free to move about. Those atoms and the resulting electrically charged gas are said to be “ionized”. When enough atoms are ionized to significantly affect the electrical characteristics of the gas, it is a plasma.
In many cases interactions between the charged particles and the neutral particles are important in determining the behavior and usefulness of the plasma. The type of atoms in a plasma, the ratio of ionized to neutral particles and the particle energies all result in a broad spectrum of plasma types, characteristics and behaviors. These unique behaviors cause plasmas to be useful in a large and growing number of important applications in our lives.