November 14, 2017 23:58 GMT by dailymail.co.uk

Caltech researchers create plasma rings in open air

The breakthrough by Caltech engineers allowed plasma to take on a clearly defined shape without the use of typical constraint methods, which could pave the way for better energy storage.

Whether inside a fluorescent light bulb or in the remarkable St. Elmo’s fire weather phenomenon, the shape of plasmas depend on the surrounding environment.

Lightning follows the path of least resistance, while man-made plasmas are confined within chambers or electromagnetic fields – but now, for the first time, engineers have created a stable ring of plasma in open air.

The breakthrough allowed the plasma to take on a clearly defined shape without the use of typical constraint methods, and scientists say it could pave the way for better energy storage.

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Lightning follows the path of least resistance, while man-made plasmas are confined within chambers or electromagnetic fields ¿ but now, for the first time, engineers have created a stable ring of plasma in open air

Lightning follows the path of least resistance, while man-made plasmas are confined within chambers or electromagnetic fields – but now, for the first time, engineers have created a stable ring of plasma in open air

THE PLASMA RING 

As the water is blasted onto the crystal, it creates a smooth flow of positively charged particles across the negatively charged surface.

As the electrons ionize the atoms and molecules in the gas near the surface, a donut shape of glowing plasma emerges.

This effect is like creating lightning in a bottle - but, without the bottle, according to the researchers. 

The ring is tiny; the engineers say it’s just dozens of microns wide, and can be seen under a microscope.

Using smoother surfaces, the researchers found that the structure of the ring became clearer.

The engineers at Caltech used a stream of water and a crystal plate to carry out the groundbreaking experiments.

And, many were skeptical.

‘We were told by some colleagues this wasn’t even possible,’ said co-author Francisco Pereira of the Marine Technology Research Institute in Italy, a visiting scholar at Caltech.

‘But we can create a stable ring and maintain it for as long as we want, no vacuum or magnetic field or anything.’

To do this, they blasted a 85-micron-diameter jet of water at 9,000 pounds per square inch, to hit the crystal plate with an impact velocity of roughly 1,000 feet per second.

The team likens this to a human hair moving at the speed of a bullet fired from a handgun.

The researchers used two different kinds of crystal plates: quartz and lithium niobate.

These are both known to induce what’s known as the triboelectric effect, in which electric charge builds up as a result of friction.

As the water is blasted onto the crystal, it creates a smooth flow of positively charged particles across the negatively charged surface.

As the electrons ionize the atoms and molecules in the gas near the surface, a donut shape of glowing plasma emerges.

This effect is like creating lightning in a bottle - but, without the bottle, according to the researchers. 

The ring is tiny; the engineers say it’s just dozens of microns wide, and can be seen under a microscope.

Using smoother surfaces, the researchers found that the structure of the ring became clearer.

And, they also found that the process caused their cell phones to encounter high levels of static.

As the electrons ionize the atoms and molecules in the gas near the surface, a donut shape of glowing plasma emerges. This effect is like creating lightning in a bottle - but, without the bottle, according to the researchers

As the electrons ionize the atoms and molecules in the gas near the surface, a donut shape of glowing plasma emerges. This effect is like creating lightning in a bottle - but, without the bottle, according to the researchers

‘That’s never been seen before,’ Pereira said, referring to the materials’ ability to be electrically polarized through mechanical stress – in this case, the flowing of water.

‘We think it’s because of the piezo properties of the materials that we used in our experiments.’

According to Morteza (Mory) Gharib (PhD '83), the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering at Caltech, there are no immediate commercial applications for the technique.

But, it could lead to better energy storage methods using plasma structures, without the need for powerful electromagnetic fields or vacuum chambers, Gharib says. 

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