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''Plasma Crystal''

Scientific Background

A plasma - an ionized gas consisting of electrons and ions - is the fourth state of matter and, besides solid (crystalline), liquid and gaseous, also the most disordered state. Plasmas exist mainly at high temperatures and expose a good electric conductivity. In our daily life we see plasmas in the flame of a candle, in the illuminating gas of neon lights, or in the shining surface of our sun. More than 99% of the visible matter in our universe is in the plasma state.

Particles under the mikroscope The crystallization of a plasma - without losing the plasma state - can be achieved with an additional component: micro-particles or 'dust'. These particles (actually melamine-formaldehyde spheres provided by externalMicroparticles GmbH, see microscopic image) with the size of several microns (1 µm = 1/1000 mm) get charged inside the plasma by the bombardment with free electrons and ions. Due to the much lower mobility of the heavier ions, the particles are hit on average by more electrons. They accumulate a negative charge of several 1000 - 10,000 electron charges. This negative charge is, at a certain distance, screened by a positive cloud of ions around the particle. (See figure below.)

At a certain particle density the particles start to interact with each other by the repulsive Coulomb force. Together with the surrounding plasma they form a so-called 'complex (dusty) plasma'. The interaction may lead to a strong coupling of the particles, resembling a fluid phase, and even to the crystallization of the particles with a typical spacing of some 1/10 mm in a so-called 'plasma crystal'. Compared to the size of the particles the inter-particle spacing in a plasma crystal is large.

Particle in plasma
Charging and screening of a
micro-particle in a plasma.
Crystallization of a complex plasma.
The width of the image is ca. 4 mm.

In general, the properties of complex plasmas and plasma crystals offer a variety of unique opportunities:
  • Particles can be observed individually. (Much simpler than e.g. the atoms of a crystal lattice.) This allows the investigation of multi-particle systems at the kinetic level.
  • Timescales are stretched due to the high mass of the particles (compared to the mass of single atoms). This results in a high time resolution of the observed processes.
  • Particles can individually be controlled and manipulated. This allows 'active' experiments.
This offers a totally new access to the physics of condensed matter and plasma physics.

View into the plasma (blue glow) with the
microparticles illuminated by a red laser beam.
(Click to enlarge.)

Further information:

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Updated: 2007-04-18
Contact: Michael Kretschmer mail
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