Engineers Create a Ring of Plasma Which Floats in Open Air

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 6:39PM
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Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 6:39PM
Engineers Create a Ring of Plasma Which Floats in Open Air
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Caltech/Mory Gharib
It's always fun when someone manages to do something that should technically be impossible.

Despite being told by colleagues that their attempts to create a ring of plasma outside of the confines of an enclosed, protective environment would end in a decisive lack of plasma rings, researchers at CalTech have managed to seemingly break (or at least bend) the laws of physics, creating a ring of plasma energy that can be maintained indefinitely in the open air.

Plasma is a fourth state of matter - alongside solid, liquid, and gas, but generally requires very specific conditions to prevent it from instantly breaking down into a more common form of matter. Typically, this control is achieved through a vacuum seal or a magnetic field that keeps the plasma in exactly the right conditions to ensure its particles won't be given the chance to rearrange too drastically.

See the plasma ring in action below:

In order to do it, the scientists used high-pressure water jets, and a focusing crystal. To fans of Star Wars, it's hard not to think of the canonical way a lightsaber works - these scientists have used a powerful crystal to produce an intense, physically tangible form of powerful energy.

While it may seem like something out of science fiction, plasma is actually present in a lot of modern inventions that most people take for granted - the funky glowing substance is an ionized gas that is responsible for making neon signs and fluorescent lightbulbs glow. It's also, somewhat more excitingly, present in lightning.

Thankfully, the scientists at CalTech are unlikely to accidentally create the supervillain Electro in the near future. Their tiny ring of ionized gas isn't huge, and requires very specific equipment in order to take form.

The process involves using a high-powered water jet which shoots out a stream of water that is 85 microns in diameter (which is thinner than a human hair), and hits with the full force of a speeding bullet. This is focused on a crystal plate made from either quartz or lithium niobate, creating intense friction that's known as "the triboelectric effect", in which pent-up energy produces an electrical charge. It's this charge that then berths a plasma ring, which scientists can maintain indefinitely.

The team of researchers, led by Caltech professor Mory Gharib, will publish the results soon in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study co-author Francisco Pereira said in a statement about their odds of success:

Opening quote
"We were told by some colleagues this wasn't even possible. But we can create a stable ring and maintain it for as long as we want, no vacuum or magnetic field or anything."
Closing quote

The plasma ring does cause some interesting effects on the surrounding area - one of the scientists involved in the study must have wanted to phone home or update Facebook to announce the successful experiment, and discovered that their cellphone wasn't working properly.

It was found that the plasma ring gives off an unusual radio frequency, jamming other signals in the vicinity. This is one of those discoveries that can only come from experimentation, as nobody expected this to occur before the radio interference was noticed.

While the existence of a plasma ring outside of a container is truly fascinating (and absolutely beautiful), it's not yet known how this might be put to use in modern technology. There will certainly be a lot of use for glowing plasma in the future (it'll probably come in handy for NASA's new ion thruster that runs on superhot plasma), but at present, this creation is so unexpected that nobody's really spent too long thinking about what its practical application might be.
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