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Q & A: plasmas and Bose condensates

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Most recent answer: 09/06/2013
Q:
What is the difference between plasma and Bose-Einstein condensate?
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- Julia Kawai (age 14)
HBS, London, England
A:
Hi Julia- These are really different forms of matter. Plasmas are gases of electrically charged particles, with equal amounts of both positive and negative charge. They behave a lot differently from ordinary gases because the electrical forces between the particles are strong, all the time. In a normal gas, the forces between the atoms or molecules are usually very weak, except when they occasionally collide.

A Bose-Einstein condensate (such as superfluid liquid helium) forms for reasons that only can be explained by quantum mechanics. There's a specific lowest energy state for the particles- say helium atoms. When the atoms become very cold, many of them go into that specific state. The behavior is a lot different from that of an ordinary fluid, in which there are plenty of different states for different particles.
Only certain types of particles, called bosons, can form Bose-Einstein condensates. The other type of particle- Fermions- can only have at most one particle in each state.

Plasmas tend to form at high temperature, since electrons then come off atoms leaving charged ions. Bose condensates form at low temperature, since at high temperatures more states are available to the atoms.

Mike W.
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(published on 10/22/2007)

Follow-Up #1: Bose-Einstein and plasma

Q:
Have plasma and Einstein bose particles ever contacted one another? If so, what was the reaction. I'm learning about these forms of matter in my 1st grade class. Thanks.
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- Luke (age 6)
Fort Worth, TX, USA
A:

Hi Luke- Your question is pretty sophisticated for a first-grader! I've put it as a follow-up to one with some useful background.

I'm not sure if you mean Bose-Einstein "particles" ("bosons") or a Bose-Einstein condensate, so I'll answer both. 

Plasmas meet up with Bose-Einstein particles all the time. That's because electromagnetic waves (radio waves, microwaves, light, etc.) are made of bosons. Since plasmas emit lots of light and absorb it too, they're always meeting bosons. When you see a glow from a plasma, that's bosons coming from it.

Since you're talking about "states of matter" perhaps what you're asking about is the Bose-Einstein condensate. I can't think right away of a case where a plasma and a B-E condensate bumped into each other. Probably it's happened somewhere, maybe even in a lab accident. Since the plasmas are hot and typical B-E condensates are delicate, that would probably be the end of the condensate. Sort of like the famous movie, Bambi meets Godzilla.

Mike W.

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(published on 09/06/2013)

Follow-up on this answer.