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The Art of Plasma

MUSEUM OF NEON ART | GLENDALE, CALIFORNIA

Technological advancements present possibilities that resonate far beyond the strictly scientific. Creative artists are often the first responders, using new technologies to express imaginative vision. The Art of Plasma, both exhibition and catalog, demonstrates to mesmerizing effect that plasma sculpture — the marriage of science, craft and art — is one such art form.

Pangea Plasma Planet, 2016 by Bernd Weinmayer & Gerhard Hochmuth

Plasma is the fourth state of matter. Solids, liquids, gases and plasma make up most of the known matter in the universe. Plasma is defined as: a collection of charged particles containing about an equal number of positive ions and electrons and exhibiting some properties of a gas but differing from a gas in being a good conductor of electricity and being affected by a magnetic field. Plasma is generated by ionizing a gas, either by heating it to high temperatures or by passing high energy electrons through it. Electrons are ripped from the tight hold of the nucleus and roam freely amidst the chaos of other vibrating atoms. These free electrons allow the plasma to conduct an electric current. As electrons vibrate in this plasma they are continually departing from and returning to the nest of the atom. They take the energy from the applied voltage to leave and must give up that energy as heat and light at discrete frequencies to return. This is the process that yields the color within the plasma.

artwork by Wayne Strattman

Examples of plasma in nature include all the stars in the universe including our sun, as well as the aurora borealis, which occurs when protons and electrons are shot from the sun, usually during sun spot activity. These particles strike the earth’s upper atmosphere at a height of approximately seventy miles while the earth’s magnetic field directs the particles toward the earth’s magnetic poles. As the particles move, they collide with atmospheric molecules of oxygen and nitrogen and change their electrical charge. In our daily lives, plasma is most like fire, which is itself a plasma— generated by heat reacting with gases found in the atmosphere, primarily oxygen. The sun and the stars shine with plasma light and lightning is an electrical discharge generating plasma light.

artwork by Wayne Strattman

Everyday light sources such as neon signs, fluorescent tubes and bulbs, and mercury and sodium vapor lamps all use plasma. The character and color of the plasma glow depends on the gases used, the voltage and frequency applied, the pressure of the gas, and even the size and geometry of the vessel it is in.

Gases commonly used in plasma sculptures and neon art are generally obtained by fractional distillation of the air we breathe. These gases are: argon, helium, krypton, neon, and xenon. Nitrogen and oxygen are also obtained this way and occasionally used in plasma art. Other vapors and gases used include: mercury, iodine, and sulfur hexafluoride.

Korey Kline, 1999
Ed Kirshner, 2017

Read the full article in PLASMA #4

credit Nora Heinisch

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