Scientists Study the Exotic "Fourth State of Matter" Using the Sun’s Atmosphere

The Sun is the perfect place for researchers to gain more insight into the lesser known state of matter, plasma.

How much do you know about the fourth state of matter? Known as plasma, it is a hot ionized gas consisting of approximately equal numbers of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons.

You probably remember the big three states of matter solid, liquid, and gas, with most of the matter we encounter in our everyday lives taking one of these forms.

Yet, unlike here on Earth, the highly unstable an electrically charged fluid, plasma, can be found all over the universe and most importantly our sun is made up of plasma.

In a recent study published in the international journal, Nature Communications, researchers looked to the sun to better understand this exotic and mysterious fourth state of matter.

Plasma Power

Working closely with scientists at the Paris Observatory and with a large radio telescope located in Nançay in central France, researchers from Trinity College Dublin combined the power of these radio observations with ultraviolet cameras on NASA's space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft to study the plasma on the sun.

Why? Plasma itself is poorly understood by scientists. Nevertheless, researchers believe a further understanding of plasma could open the gates to the development of safe, clean and efficient nuclear energy generators on Earth.

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The sun itself is a special place that represents an all-natural laboratory to study how plasma behaves in extreme conditions that are not possible to recreate here back on earth.

Simply studying the behavior of plasma on the Sun compared to earth will play a crucial role in the building of magnetic confinement fusion reactors.

These reactors hold the promise of being safer, cleaner and more efficient than the nuclear energy generators that we find all around the world. As stated by Professor at DIAS and collaborator on the project, Peter Gallagher:

"Nuclear fusion is a different type of nuclear energy generation that fuses plasma atoms together, as opposed to breaking them apart like fission does. Fusion is more stable and safer, and it doesn't require highly radioactive fuel; in fact, much of the waste material from fusion is inert helium."

"The only problem is that nuclear fusion plasmas are highly unstable. As soon as the plasma starts generating energy, some natural process switches off the reaction. While this switch-off behaviour is like an inherent safety switch -- fusion reactors cannot form runaway reactions -- it also means the plasma is difficult to maintain in a stable state for energy generation.”

“By studying how plasmas become unstable on the Sun, we can learn about how to control them on Earth."

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The research could not only offer a strong understanding of nuclear energy but could shed light on how plasma behaves around the universe. 

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