Physicists at the Christian-Albrechts Universität in Kiel and Ernst-Moritz-Arndt
Universität in Greifswald (Germany) have been able to rig a ball of
dust particles holding to a crystalline structure even in the middle
of a hot plasma.
Most crystals---that is, solid materials in which atoms are arrayed
in a regular stacked-cannonball order---melt at temperatures of hundreds
or thousands of degrees. The heartiest crystal, diamond, succumbs at
4000 K. The heat is just too much for the atomic bonds and the defining
gridiron structure weakens and melts.
Another sort of “crystal,” at low temperatures, is the optical crystal
consisting of an artificial and diffuse array of atoms held at the interstices
of a 3-dimensional lattice by the electric fields of cross-cutting laser
The plasma crystal, by great contrast, consists of a herd of charged
3.5-micron-sized polymer particles amidst a gas-discharge. Juggling
two mighty forces---the mutual repulsion of the particles among themselves
and the compressive force on them by the surrounding plasma---the particles
manage to arrange themselves into neat concentric spheres, to a total
ball diameter of several mm (see figure at Physics
It is ironic that J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, had
suggested in 1904 that the layout of the periodic table of elements
could be explained if atoms had exactly this sort of onionlike architecture,
with negative charges held poised in a wider sea of positive charges.
This idea was wrong for atoms but does describe the arrangement of the
dust particles in this plasma.
To sum up: in a plasma where the electron temperature is 40,000 K (the
positive-ion temperature is less than 1000 K), an orderly Coulomb ball
consisting of aligned, concentric shells of dust particles can survive
for long periods.
The two outstanding features of the ball (other than its survival at
such high temperatures) are that it represents a true transparent crystal;
with a microscope and video camera individual particles in the middle
of the structure can be imaged by laser light. The other feature is
the slowness of the dynamics. The particles move about with a characteristic
timescale of milliseconds rather than the femtosecond scale of atoms
in a conventional crystal.
The study of laboratory plasma crystals, the experimenters believe,
gives fundamental insight into strongly coupled matter and applies directly
to the study of intergalactic nebulae, comet tails, the rings of Saturn
and, back here on Earth, in the improvement of various microchip processing
steps. (Oliver Arp et al., Physical
Review Letters, upcoming article; contact Dietmar Block firstname.lastname@example.org,