What is plasma?

The central element in a fluorescent light is a plasma, a gas made up of free-flowing ions (electrically charged atoms) and electrons (negatively charged particles). Under normal conditions, a gas is mainly made up of uncharged particles. That is, the individual gas atoms include equal numbers of protons (positively charged particles in the atom's nucleus) and electrons. The negatively charged electrons perfectly balance the positively charged protons, so the atom has a net charge of zero.

If you introduce many free electrons into the gas by establishing an electrical voltage across it, the situation changes very quickly. The free electrons collide with the atoms, knocking loose other electrons. With a missing electron, an atom loses its balance. It has a net positive charge, making it an ion.

In a plasma with an electrical current running through it, negatively charged particles are rushing toward the positively charged area of the plasma, and positively charged particles are rushing toward the negatively charged area.

­In this mad rush, particles are constantly bumping into each other. These collisions excite the gas atoms in the plasma, causing them to release photons of energy. (For details on this process, see How Fluorescent Lamps Work.)

Xenon and neon atoms, the atoms used in plasma screens, release light photons when they are excited. Mostly, these atoms release ultraviolet light photons, which are invisible to the human eye. But ultraviolet photons can be used to excite visible light photons, as we'll see in the next section.