30-Second Video: Scientists Re-Create Mesmerizing Weather Phenomenon for First Time

Plasma lightning can sometimes be seen during thunderstorms as floating balls of light. Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Sailors used to think that the strange yet beautiful lights sometimes seen floating on ships' decks during thunderstorms were a celestial sign of good omen and fortune. Now, we know the lights, referred to as St. Elmo's fire, are actually a type of lightning made from plasma. In a new study, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have recreated the luminous weather phenomena from the safety of their lab, a feat that is pretty much as rare as, well, catching lightning in a bottle.

Simple life experience teaches us that there are at least three forms of matter: solid, liquid and gas, but many of us forget about the fourth form: plasma. This strange state is made from charged particles that naturally glow on their own. In a study now published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences​, Caltech researchers explain how they were able to re-create this fourth matter form and materialize a stable ring of plasma in open air.

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To reproduce this natural phenomenon, the team started with using a single stream of water and a crystal plate. The water stream was narrower than a human hair and hit the crystal plate with an impact of 1,000 feet per second, which is nearly as fast as a bullet being fired from a handgun. As the water hit the crystal plate, it caused positively charged ions water ion to hit the negatively charged crystal ions, creating a glowing plasma aura in the shape of a donut.

Further experiments revealed that the smoothness of the crystal plate affected the shape of the aura—the smoother the crystal plate, the more clearly formed the plasma ring was. The observation is noteworthy because in nature, plasma usually takes the shape of a ball rather than a perfectly formed ring.

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The team hopes to patent the design. There may not be a commercial demand for floating plasma rings just yet, but in the researchers hope their discovery could eventually be used as a way to store energy more effectively.

For now, the glowing doughnut is proof that even the "impossible" can be done if you really put your mind to it. Now, the researchers can create a stable plasma ring and keep it going for as long as they want without any extra tools like vacuums or magnetic fields, co-author Francisco Pereira of the Marine Technology Research Institute in Italy, a visiting scholar at Caltech, said in a statement. "We were told by some colleagues this wasn't even possible."