Neon lights, astrophysics, lightning and, of course, televisions – plasma is all around us. But what exactly is it and how can we harness its power? This month, Horizon takes an in-depth look at the fourth state of matter, finding out how it could be used to fix environmental problems such as wastewater contamination and factory emissions. We speak to the scientists who are attempting to use plasma energy to create more powerful particle accelerators and probe the mysteries of the universe. We also find out how researchers are trying to recreate astrophysical plasma in their labs and investigate the potential of cold plasma to save lives.
Lab-based results showing that cold plasma can stop the growth of cancer cells have sparked hope that it could one day be used to treat the disease in humans – but scientists first need to understand why it has the effect it does.
Mysterious radiation emitted from distant corners of the galaxy could finally be explained with efforts to recreate a unique state of matter that blinked into existence in the first moments after the Big Bang.
Plasma particle accelerators more powerful than existing machines could help probe some of the outstanding mysteries of our universe, as well as make leaps forward in cancer treatment and security scanning - all in a package that’s around a thousandth of the size of current accelerators. All that's left is for scientists to build one.
Plasma technologies are everywhere — and could soon be rendering hospital wastewater harmless, scrubbing toxins out of gas in factory smokestacks and stopping dangerous ice formation on aeroplanes and electrical infrastructure, according to Professor Christian Oehr, head of the interfacial engineering and materials science department at Fraunhofer IGB in Stuttgart, Germany.
In its landmark report in October, the UN's International Panel on Climate Change said that every package of measures we choose to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C must include a way of removing carbon dioxide emissions from the air and reusing or storing them. This month, Horizon looks at what's being done to advance these carbon capture, storage and utilisation technologies. We talk to one expert who is trying to trap emissions from the cement industry before they are released, and find out how International Space Station technology is inspiring the capture of ambient carbon dioxide. We also investigate how captured CO2 can be reused, and examine just how safe it is to store the gas underground.
Dumped waste, from used nappies to industrial by-products, have long wound up in landfills and can take hundreds of years to decay. In October we speak to the scientists figuring out how to keep such items in use to reduce rubbish and create a so-called circular economy. We learn about new efforts to mine industrial waste for the rare metals that go into making aircraft parts, pacemakers and bicycle gears, and find out about the culture shift needed to develop a zero-waste society. We also speak to the researchers building a biorefinery to turn soiled nappies into fertilisers and raw materials, and look at whether seaweed could become the next plastic.
A new type of use-by label for milk bottles that decomposes as the liquid inside goes sour could appear on UK supermarket shelves later this year. Labels such as these, capable of telling consumers exactly when fresh produce has gone bad, are being developed by scientists who want to stop food from being prematurely discarded. If successful, these indicators have the potential to reduce the millions of tonnes of valuable food thrown away each year.
When astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), it’s removed from the air and pumped into space. Could an Earth-based version help remove greenhouse gas emissions from our atmosphere?
Wireless tags and indicators that mimic decomposition could replace expiry dates.
Capturing carbon dioxide from air is a vital part of limiting global warming.
Deploying this technology rests on successfully making a business case to companies, says Kristin Jordal.