Exotic Fourth State of Matter on the Sun

Solid, liquid and gas? You’re right, but there’s another one.. Find out more about it and how observing it may help meet our energy needs.

What are the states of matter? Liquid, solid and gas, you say? That’s what my teachers said too, but that isn’t the full story. There’s a fourth state of matter called plasma. We never experience it as we go about our business, but in cosmic terms it’s not rare at all. Most of the matter in the universe is plasma. Scientists are learning more about this fourth state of matter from experiments in space laboratories and better ways of observing the sun from earth.

We can think of plasma as a volatile fluid with an electrical charge. It seems exotic to us, but plasma is everywhere. For example, plasma makes up our sun. Yet, as common as plasma is, it’s still a mystery to us here on earth. We don’t come across plasma on our planet under normal conditions. Lab conditions on earth limit what scientists can do to study plasma. Researchers are able to simulate extreme conditions to learn how plasma behaves. Even so, the sun provides a better opportunity to watch what plasma does in its normal environment.The sun also creates conditions too extreme to be replicated in an artificial facility.

Researchers are solving the mystery of the fourth state of matter though, and they announced a breakthrough last week. Scientists from Ireland and France released new discoveries in this area in the journal Nature Communications. NASA owns the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. The reserch team used ultraviolet cameras aboard it and ground based radio telescopes in France. They confirmed that the plasma on our sun emits pulses of radio light like a lighthouse. This is the first time that we have been able to create images of these pulses and see plasma’s instability in the solar atmosphere.

This is exciting because it has practical applications on earth. The nuclear reactors that generate electricity today are based on fission. Fission is not as safe, clean or efficient as the other nuclear reaction known as fusion. To date, engineers have not been able to get nuclear fusion to work in a safe, practical way. Fusion would be more efficient and safe than fission and it wouldn’t need radioactive fuel. Most of the waste from fusion reactors would be Helium, which is a safe, inert gas.

The problem is that the matter in a fusion reaction takes the form of plasma, which makes it highly unstable. Engineers need a stable fusion reaction, but the plasma state triggers natural processes that stop the reaction before the reactor can produce energy. This keeps fusion safe but it also prevents it from being workable for the time being.

These new discoveries about plasma on the sun can be used to better understand how to control matter in plasma form in our nuclear reactors on earth. In time, this could lead to ways of stabilizing nuclear fusion to give us safer, cleaner and more efficient nuclear power plants for our growing electricity needs.

The project is a joint venture between Trinity College Dublin, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the Paris Observatory and NASA. Dr. Eoin Carley, who leads the study said, “the solar atmosphere is a hotbed of extreme activity, with plasma temperatures in excess of 1 million degrees Celsius and particles that travel close to light-speed. The light-speed particles shine bright at radio wavelengths, so we’re able to monitor exactly how plasmas behave with large radio telescopes.”

Dr. Nicole Vilmer, who leads the project team in Paris, said: “The Paris Observatory has a long history of making radio observations of the Sun, dating back to the 1950s. By teaming up with other radio astronomy groups around Europe we are able to make groundbreaking discoveries such as this one and continue the success we have in solar radio astronomy in France. It also further strengthens scientific collaboration between France and Ireland, which I hope continues in the future.”

D​r. Carley responded, “the collaboration with French scientists is ongoing and we’re already making progress with newly built radio telescopes in Ireland, such as the Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR). I-LOFAR can be used to uncover new plasma physics on the Sun in far greater detail than before, teaching us about how matter behaves in both plasmas on the Sun, here on Earth and throughout the Universe in general.”

Eoin P. Carley, Laura A. Hayes, Sophie A. Murray, Diana E. Morosan, Warren Shelley, Nicole Vilmer, Peter T. Gallagher. Loss-cone instability modulation due to a magnetohydrodynamic sausage mode oscillation in the solar corona. Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-10204-1


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