Plasma Physics Jobs

There are many career opportunities in engineering and physics for individuals knowledgeable about plasmas. Artificially produced plasmas are found in plasma displays for TVs and computers, inside fluorescent lamps and neon signs, and the area in front of a spacecraft's heat shield during reentry into the atmosphere. A plasma is a partially ionized gas in which a certain proportion of electrons are free rather than being bound to an atom or molecule. The ability of the positive and negative charges to move somewhat independently makes the plasma electrically conductive. A plasma has such different properties than a solid, liquid, or gas it is considered a distinct state of matter.

There are job opportunities for plasma experts at the Joint European Torus, the largest man made magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment currently in operation. Another major project is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. These research/engineering projects have the goal of producing fusion power to replace fission and coal power generators.

Careers based on knowledge of plasmas exist in the fabrication of semiconductor devices. Reactive ion etching (RIE) uses chemically reactive plasma to remove material deposited on wafers for micromanufacturing. Plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) and sputtering are similar manufacturing procedures. Plasmas were first discovered inside a Crookes tube and reminded some people of blood. Terrestrial plasmas include fire and lightning and stars consist of plasmas.

A career in plasma physics requires leaning about this fourth state of matter. The distinguishing feature of a plasma is that the charged particles must be close enough together so that each particle influences many nearby charged particles, rather than just interacting with the closest particle. In other words, electrostatic interactions must dominate over the processes of ordinary gas kinetics. These conditions can be more precisely defined in terms of the Debye sphere or Debye screening length, which plays a roll in electrolytes and colloids. Another feature is that the interactions in the bulk of the plasma are more important than those at its edges, where boundary effects may take place. Also, the electron plasma frequency (measuring plasma oscillations of the electrons) must be large compared to the electron-neutral collision frequency (measuring frequency of collisions between electrons and neutral particles).

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