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Understanding the Often-Forgotten Fourth State of Matter

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

In elementary school, we were taught about the states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. We talked about the properties of each, what makes them different, and where we see examples of them in our everyday lives. The teachers may have mentioned the fourth state, plasma, as an afterthought, but it wasn’t important enough to teach in elementary school. Chances are, you’ve gone through most of your education without ever understanding plasma.

What is plasma?

Even if you know of it, that doesn’t mean you actually know what plasma is. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, which is created when energy is added to the gas state, heating it up enough to become a different state of matter entirely. It is similar to gas in that it lacks a definite shape and has a lower density than liquids and solids. However, there is one major difference. 

Ionized gas

Plasma is essentially an ionized gas. When matter is heated to such an extreme level, electrons are stripped from the atoms governing the state of matter. Ions are what we call the remains of these overheated atoms. Because plasma consists of ions, it has interesting properties such as the ability to conduct electricity and respond to magnetic fields.

Understanding plasma practically

One of the reasons we don’t learn about plasma as extensively as the other states of matter is because the applications of it in our everyday lives aren’t as obvious. While 99% of the universe is plasma, we don’t see it the way we see the other states of matter on a daily basis. Plasma is used in different applications of technology, but the most common interest in plasma is associated with physics. Understanding plasma’s physical properties allows us to learn more about galactic objects ranging from black holes to our very own Sun. The practicality of plasma seems less prevalent from our Earth-bound perspective, but look outward to the rest of the universe and plasma becomes much more appreciated.

Perhaps teaching elementary school students about ionized gas and its application to studying black holes is far-fetched. Maybe that’s why our early learning glosses over it. I was always fascinated by plasma because it seemed very mysterious. Unlike my solid phone, the liquid coffee I drank this morning, and the gas steam from a hot bowl of soup, plasma isn’t as obvious of a contributor in my everyday life. It’s only when we gain a broader perspective that plasma starts to unveil itself as an incredible and useful state of matter.

Katie is a double major in Journalism and Astrophysics at Michigan State and the Senior Editor for the HCMSU chapter. She is an avid reader and loves writing, especially poetry. When she isn't writing or learning about space, she loves to listen to music and scrapbook. To see some of her recent works, visit her blog: katietswritingcorner.wordpress.com