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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Introduction

Summary

This text concerns the basic elementary physics of plasmas, which are a special class of gases made up of a large number of electrons and ionized atoms and molecules, in addition to neutral atoms and molecules as are present in a normal (non-ionized) gas. The most important distinction between a plasma and a normal gas is the fact that mutual Coulomb interactions between charged particles are important in the dynamics of a plasma and cannot be disregarded. When a neutral gas is raised to a sufficiently high temperature, or when it is subjected to electric fields of sufficient intensity, the atoms and molecules of the gas may become ionized, electrons being stripped off by collisions as a result of the heightened thermal agitation of the particles. Ionization in gases can also be produced as a result of illumination with ultraviolet light or X-rays, by bombarding the substance with energetic electrons and ions, or in other ways. When a gas is ionized, even to a rather small degree, its dynamical behavior is typically dominated by the electromagnetic forces acting on the free ions and electrons, and it begins to conduct electricity. The charged particles in such an ionized gas interact with electromagnetic fields, and the organized motions of these charge carriers (e.g., electric currents, fluctuations in charge density) can in turn produce electromagnetic fields.