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Events June 1 2024 By Vargas

Plasma engineering

Alessandro N. Vargas

Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, alongside solid, liquid, and gas. It is characterized by a significant portion of charged particles, such as ions and electrons, which give it unique electrical properties. Plasma is often created by heating a gas or subjecting it to a strong electromagnetic field, causing the gas to become ionized. It is the most abundant form of matter in the universe, found in stars, the intergalactic medium, and even in common technologies like neon signs, and plasma TVs.

A particular type of plasma that has received attention from the industry is called cold temperature plasma. It is also referred to as as nonthermal or non-equilibrium plasma. This type of plasma remains in is a state where the electron temperature is much hotter than that of the heavier species like ions and neutrals. This means that while the electrons are at a high energy level, the overall temperature of the plasma remains low, often near the room temperature or little above it. This temperature characteristic allows for plasma application in situations where high temperatures would be detrimental, such as in medical treatments or delicate manufacturing processes.

Plasma touching fingertip.
Figure 1: Plasma touching Alessandro N. Vargas' fingertip at UC Berkeley, May 2024.

Plasma processes are crucial in various industrial processes due to their unique properties. In the semiconductor industry, nearly half of all manufacturing steps involve plasma, which is essential for creating the chips that power today's electronics. Plasma technologies enable precise etching and deposition needed for integrated circuits, making modern computing and communication devices possible. Additionally, plasma processes are used in the battery industry to streamline manufacturing, reduce costs, and minimize environmental impact. In the food industry, cold plasma is explored for its potential to sanitize products without heating them, preserving quality while ensuring safety.

Plasma's versatility and ability to manipulate materials at the atomic level make it an invaluable tool across a wide range of applications, driving innovation and efficiency in manufacturing.