How Plasma, a.k.a. “Science Lightning” Will Change the World

Cracked.com, a humor site, posted an article today on 4 awesome plasma based technologies that exist today, in some form. The article used the term “science lightning” for plasma, which I liked. The technologies are:

1. Plasma arc remediation of waste
2. Plasma wave particle accelerator
3. Plasma scalpel
4. Matter-antimatter plasma

The list mostly goes from existing and in use to known about but not common by any means. It’s pretty cool that plasma technologies and applications has crossed the desk of an internet humor site like Cracked. I’ll briefly explain each one, though not nearly with as much humor as they did. Serious, go read it, it’s hilarious.

Plasma arc remediation
Today our waste is either dumped into landfills and allowed to decompose slowly over time, or thrown into industrial burners to be turned into gas and ash. The first is slow and takes up a lot of space, and no one likes smelly garbage dumps. The second is faster, but burning waste is terrible for the environment. Whether you believe in global warming or not, you have to admit that the smell of burning plastic is bad, and you can imagine there’s some toxic materials being emitted. Plasma remediation follows the logical progression of fire burning, by really turning up the temperature. A fire is hot enough to will break down the waste and cause it to evaporate as gaseous molecules like CO2, NO, or more complex and toxic molecules. If you keep turning up the heat, those molecules will split more and eventually turn into the basic atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and whatever else is in the waste. A plasma arc is great at doing this since it’s essentially using lighting bolts, which are about the temperature of the surface of the sun, to blast the waste into its basic building blocks. Since most of our waste tends to be food, paper, and plastics, all of which are made from combinations of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, then that’s what you’d get after the plasma is done. The basic atoms aren’t harmful to the environment and can actually be turn back into useful things. For example hydrogen could be used to run fuel cells or an engine.

Plasma wave accelerator
This little device, not really little, is used to help particle accelerators increase the speed of the particle they throw around. In a plasma, the negative electrons and positive ions naturally generate electric field between themselves in order to stay together and keep a balance between negative and positive charges. Thus plasma is typically called a quasi-neutral state. So if you can create a sudden separation between the charges, they create a massive electric field in order to restore balance, and that field can be harnessed to help accelerate your particles of interest. So your particles get to “surf” the plasma wake. This is used in conventional particle accelerators to get that extra boost closer to the speed of light. Yes, there are “conventional” particle accelerators. The article make the same point, and it goes to show how far we have come.

Plasma scalpel
This is an interesting application that covers two very different regimes of plasma. As the name would suggest, a plasma can be used like a surgery scalpel to cut flesh. Just like the plasma arc waste blaster, a high temperature and very thing plasma jet can be used to cut flesh. The main advantage of the plasma scalpel is that it is so hot it can cauterize and kill any bacteria. This is great for certain applications like combat medics on the battlefield where dirt and bacteria are common and sticking a physical blade into a wound could be dangerous.

The second use of a plasma for medical use is a much low temperature plasma, like room temperature, to cause biological and chemical reactions. This is the field of plasma medicine, which we are also studying in our research in the lab. A cold plasma may be a misnomer. The plasma is cold to the touch because the ions and neutral are at room temperature, but the electrons are some 10,000+ degrees Celsius. Luckily electrons are very very small so can’t heat you up, kind of like sparks. Those high energy electrons can cause useful chemical reactions like a chemical catalyst. Plasma medicine research has looked a cancer treatment, wound healing, and other applications. Though the current issue is selectivity, since the plasma will kill cancer cells, but also any other healthy cells nearby. But this is still a fast growing field and poised to make breakthroughs for future medicine.

Matter-antimatter plasma
And here we’ve entered into the slightly futuristic realm. Antimatter is the fuel of the spaceships in Star Trek, and the crux of the threat in the Angels and Demons book. Antimatter as most people know is the opposite of our regular matter. And when a matter and antimatter particle meet, they mutually destroy each other an release a heck of a lot of energy according to Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. That reaction release a lot of energy, and most of that turns into heat, which will turn any object into a plasma. Matter-antimatter plasma are likely the hottest ones known. For propulsion that heat is use to move the ship. For the bomb in Dan Brown’s book, the heat is used for not so nice purposes. There’s no need to worry though, we can’t make enough antimatter to destroy anything besides maybe a beaker. CERN can only make some 1 billionth of a gram a year. Unfortunately that means we’re not going to get the Star Trek warp engines anytime soon.

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