Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 3

By Vernon Trollinger, April 26, 2016, Events & Fun

Energy – whether electrical, thermal, or mechanical – can do fantastic things, and sometimes science uncovers phenomena no one even dreamed was possible. Because it’s fun to shock and astound friends and relations with incredible facts, we’re going to investigate some of this unbelievable and really cool information. Our Fun Energy Facts series will be at times hot, cold, weighty, electrifying, and morbid, but we know you’ll get enough of a charge out of it to spark an energetic conversation.

Heat (or the lack thereof) directly affects how matter behaves. This month, we’ll first examine the incredible things that happens when matter is heated to extremes and then we’ll peek at some of the cool, weird stuff that happens just before temperatures fall to absolute zero.

The Fourth State of Matter

Up until only a few decades ago, most school children were only taught that there were three physical states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Since plasma theory began developing in the 1920’s through the 1960’s, it’s now clear that the fourth state of matter is plasma.

What’s plasma?


Plasma usually occurs once a gas is super heated to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit (lightning is a plasma and can reach 53,540 °F).

At this point, the electrons lose their bonds to the molecules they orbit and break free with a negative charge, leaving the nucleus behind with a positive charge (making it an ion).Plasma starts out with neutral charges because the negative and positive charges cancel out each other.

Plasma is highly electrically conductive stuff, so it responds to electromagnetic fields. So while it will take the shaped of a container, like a gas, it will also send out streamers, beams, and other structures under the influence of an electromagnetic field.

OK. That’s cool, but what can I do with it?

Because of that electromagnetic field, plasma lets you weld and coat all sorts of things that you can’t do using a normal welding or electroplating process.

  • Plasma-spraying allows you to apply any material on to any material. For example, you can apply apply copper to porcelain – which makes it a solderable semiconductor component.
  • You can also bond metals to ceramics in layers or metals like titanium to steel. The process works by heating the coating material (or melting it) and spraying at high velocity onto the surface as it passes through a electric arc plasma that heats the surface to 18,000°F.

But plasma can also be formed at low temperatures by using high voltages to convert gasses into plasma. Plasma TVs work by using high voltage electricity to ionize pixel cells.


For example, the famed plasma globe lamp uses 2,000 to 5,000 volts oscillating at 35 kilohertz to ionize the low pressure gasses inside the globe. While they use high voltage, they don’t use huge amounts of current — making them safe to have around the living room. (see “It’s not the Volts that Kill You”)

Currently, plasma needs to be contained either within a small electric arc (as with a torch, welder, sprayer) or within some container such as a globe or pix cell. Creating and controlling one in the free air is like putting a saddle on a bolt of lighting. And it looks like that’s the next phase.

Nifty! What’s the future of plasma?

Professor Randy Curry’s Research team at the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering has been working with open-air plasma for several years.

  • In 2013, they successfully created a high density ring-shaped air plasma.
  • They exploded a copper wire with high voltage electricity – basically vaporizing it).
  • This formed a ring about 24 inches in diameter, between 11,420.6° to 13400.6°F. It floated with a self-sustaining magnetic field.
  • The rings didn’t emit radiation and aren’t a danger to humans when exposed to them.
  • The ring lasted far longer than previous experiments, though only 10-12 microseconds.

Curry believes his work may unlock to the secret to fusion energy. For the moment, increasing the plasma’s lifespan could reduce the silicon thin-film coating process in the semi-conductor industry.

Superconductors are Cool!


Extreme cold does really cool stuff to the electric properties of matter, too! Superconductors have long been a science fiction plot device and initially offered as technological solution for devices of the 21st century. The problem is that you have to keep things cool – really, really cool!

IBM researchers Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing a high-temperature ceramic superconductor that only had to be chilled to -405.76°F. Absolute zero° Kelvin (K) is -459.67 °F.

Superconductivity happens when certain materials are cooled to the point they lose all electrical resistance within an electromagnetic field. An induced charge can persist indefinitely in a superconductor. This happens due to a quantum mechanics phenomena called the Meissner effect. A superconductor reaches its Meissener state when it expels or deflects all fields around it from inside. When a superconductor is placed in range of a magnet, you get levitation.

You’re Getting Colder!


The closer you get to absolute zero ° K, the weirder matter becomes.

The gas helium turns into a liquid at about 4.22° K. Even if you continue chilling it, it will bubble slosh about until it hits 2.17° K when it turns into a super fluid. It loses all viscosity — so it has no internal friction. The liquid will creep up out of cups through capillary action until the cup is empty. Because there’s no friction in the liquid, it can pull itself out of the cup entirely by itself.

Another experiment showed a finely porous ceramic bottom beaker that was able to hold liquefied helium because there was still enough resistance in the liquid to prevent it from leaking out the pores. Once the helium chilled to a super-fluid, it easily leaked out from the bottom.

Colder and Even Cooler


If you take a couple of sodium atoms and cool them to 177/1 billionth of a degree above zero°K, you get a thing called a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). BEC does something very interesting at the quantum level. Normally, atoms and particles oscillate at their own speed. However, those that form a BEC vibrate together, essentially creating a single large quantum object or atom.

BECs are being used to research how quantum states work and potentially maybe used to speed development of quantum computing systems and is already seeing innovations in reading and writing data.

Science is cool!

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