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Plasmas - The Greatest Show on Earth

by Kathy Chambers on Mon, 24 Jun, 2013

Perhaps the most beautiful and eerie displays of light in our sky are a phenomenon known as the auroras. This natural glow of light in the sky in high latitude regions usually displays ribbons of colors from a fluorescent green to brilliant purple to a vivid crimson somewhat like an unexpected beautiful sunrise or sunset.  Observers often call it the greatest show on Earth.

Auroras are triggered by geomagnetic storms when gusts of solar plasma wind strike the Earth’s magnetic field; charged particles rain down over the north and south magnetic poles, lighting up the atmosphere and causing the air to glow. In the northern latitude, this display is known as the aurora borealis or northern lights and in the southern latitude, it is known as aurora australis or southern lights.  Like lightening, auroras are one of the few naturally-occurring plasmas found here on Earth.

Plasma science involving both natural and artificially produced plasma encompasses a variety of science disciplines ranging from plasma physics, atomic and molecular physics, chemistry, energy security, advanced space propulsion, and material science.  Plasma’s unique behaviors and characteristics make them useful in a large and growing number of scientific and industrial applications important to our universe.  

DOE researchers are making significant progress in this amazing field.  For example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have determined that ambient-gas plasma could be a promising strategy for clinical and community infection control. The Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are researching plasma-based microwave thrusters for advanced spaceship propulsion.  And, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory researchers are exploring the science behind the behavior of plasmas in everything from deep space to the production of high-energy particle beams and nanomaterials.  

Read more about the nature of plasma and the research being funded by DOE in Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper In the OSTI Collections – Plasma , currently featured in OSTI’s June Science Showcase.   There are also over 397,000 current and historical research reports (200,000+ with full text) detailing plasma research in DOE’s free Scitech Connect database.   

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Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Senior STI Specialist, Information International Associates, Inc.