Curious Minds

How many states of matter are there?

If I ask this question to anyone, a prompt reply would be three and to be more firm on their answer, they would add by saying Solid, Liquid and Gas. What about you? Do you think this is correct? Well, it's obvious, because that's what we were taught in our schools. Surprisingly, the answer "three" is incorrect. In fact, there are two more states of matter that exist. They are Plasma and Bose-Einstein Condensate.

As we move from lower temperature to higher temperatures, a substance undergoes transformation due to change in properties. All the states of matter are a result of this transformation.

Let's have a look at each of these states of matter and their properties.

Solid : They are characterized by -
  • Structural rigidity. i.e. they have definite shape.
  • Resistance to changes of shape or volume and hence they are difficult to deform easily.
  • They occupy a specific area and volume.
Liquid : They exhibit the following basic properties -
  • They lack rigidity in shape. They take the shape of the container which contains them.
  • They occupy a specific volume and generally do not expand to occupy the entire available volume under normal conditions.
Gas :
  • They have no definite shape.
  • Gases expand to occupy the entire available volume unlike solids and liquids.

But what happens if you raise the temperature to super-high levels, between 1000°C and 1,000,000,000°C? Here comes the 4th state of matter - Plasma.

Plasma : If the gas is made up of particles which carry an electric charge ("ionized particles"), but the entire gas as a whole has no electric charge, and if the density is not too high, then we can get the 4th state of matter - Plasma. It is the ionization of gas at higher temperatures.

Some examples of Plasma are - flames (fire), lightning, neon lights, stars. Also, the sun is an example of a star in plasma state.

Plasma is a result of rise in temperature of a gas. But now what happens if you lower the temperature way, way, down to 100 nano degrees above "Absolute Zero" (-273°C)? Will the substance be just a frozen solid? The answer is NO. It will be in its 5th state of matter.

Bose-Einstein Condensate : In a Bose-Einstein condensate, atoms can no longer bounce around as individuals. Instead they must all act in exactly the same way, and you can no longer tell them apart!

In 1924, two scientists, Albert Einstein and Satyendra Bose predicted a 5th state of matter which would occur at very very low temperatures.

But this state of matter was discovered for the first time in 1995 by Wolfgang Ketterle and his team of graduate students. In 2002, Ketterle and two other scientists received the highest award in science for discovering Bose-Einstein condensate.

« Back