Dusty Plasmas

An emerging interdisciplinary field

Dusty plasmas are ionized gases that contain macroscopic charge carriers, in addition to electrons and ions, including ice particles, water drops, or simply specks of dust. Interplanetary space, comets, planetary rings, asteroids, the Moon, and aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere are all examples where electrons, ions, and dust particles co-exist. The study of these particles and their interactions is an emerging field bridging basic plasma physics studies with atmospheric, planetary, and space sciences.

Scientists are interested in dusty plasmas for a variety of reasons:

  • Dust particles immersed in plasmas and bathed in ultraviolet radiation collect electrostatic charges and respond to electromagnetic forces, in addition to gravity, radiation pressure, and drag
  • Dust particles in plasmas are unusual charge carriers: they are heavier and can have larger negative or positive charges, introducing new temporal and spatial scales
  • Dust particles, immersed in a plasma, can change the temperature and composition of their environment. Dust can influence the collective plasma behavior, triggering new types of plasma waves and instabilities, including dust acoustic waves with many orders of magnitudes larger wavelengths and lower frequencies than ordinary plasma waves.

LASP’s Institute for Modeling Plasma, Atmospheres, and Cosmic Dust (IMPACT) is a multi-institutional member of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI). IMPACT, in collaboration with CU Boulder’s physics and aerospace engineering sciences departments, has a rapidly growing experimental and theoretical program exploring dusty plasmas that includes laboratory investigations, rocket experiments, and spacecraft instrumentation.