Scientists find new clues about the exotic matter in the Sun’s atmosphere. They can use it to develop safe and clean nuclear energy generators on Earth.

A team of Irish and French scientists has discovered new clues into how matter behaves in the extreme conditions of the Sun’s atmosphere.

They used ground-based radio telescopes and ultraviolet cameras mounted on a NASA spacecraft to better understand the exotic “fourth state of matter”. Known as plasma, this hot ionized gas consists of approximately equal numbers of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons.

It could hold the key to developing safe, clean and efficient nuclear energy generators on Earth.

“Most of the matter we encounter in our everyday lives comes in the form of solid, liquid or gas, but the majority of the Universe is composed of plasma – a highly unstable and electrically charged fluid,” explained Dr. Eoin Carley, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS).

Plasma is the most common form of matter in the Universe but it still remains a mystery. That’s due to its scarcity in natural conditions on Earth, which makes it difficult to study.

But the Sun is the best place to study how plasma behaves in extreme conditions that are not possible to recreate here back on Earth.

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“The solar atmosphere is a hotbed of extreme activity, with plasma temperatures in excess of 1 million degrees Celsius and particles that travel close to light-speed. The light-speed particles shine bright at radio wavelengths, so we’re able to monitor exactly how plasmas behave with large radio telescopes,” said Dr. Eoin Carley who led the international collaboration.

“We worked closely with scientists at the Paris Observatory and performed observations of the Sun with a large radio telescope located in Nançay in central France. We combined the radio observations with ultraviolet cameras on NASA’s space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft to show that plasma on the sun can often emit radio light that pulses like a light-house.”

Scientists have known about this activity for decades. But the use of space and ground-based equipment allowed them to image the radio pulses for the first time and see exactly how plasmas become unstable in the solar atmosphere.

Studying the behavior of plasmas on the Sun will help us learn how they behave on Earth. These are nuclear energy generators that are much safer, cleaner and more efficient than their fission reactor cousins that we currently use for energy today.

“Nuclear fusion is a different type of nuclear energy generation that fuses plasma atoms together,” says Professor at DIAS and collaborator on the project, Peter Gallagher, “as opposed to breaking them apart like fission does. Fusion is more stable and safer, and it doesn’t require highly radioactive fuel; in fact, much of the waste material from fusion is inert helium.”

“The only problem is that nuclear fusion plasmas are highly unstable. As soon as the plasma starts generating energy, some natural process switches off the reaction. While this switch-off behavior is like an inherent safety switch — fusion reactors cannot form runaway reactions — it also means the plasma is difficult to maintain in a stable state for energy generation. By studying how plasmas become unstable on the Sun, we can learn about how to control them on Earth.”

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