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.
Did you know?
NASA experts helped develop the technology that is found in many home theaters. Learn more about cool NASA innovations in this interactive animation from Discovery Channel.
Inside a Plasma Display
The xenon and neon gas in a plasma television is contained in hundreds of thousands of tiny cells positioned between two plates of glass. Long electrodes are also sandwiched between the glass plates, on both sides of the cells. The address electrodes sit behind the cells, along the rear glass plate. The transparent display electrodes, which are surrounded by an insulating dielectric material and covered by a magnesium oxide protective layer, are mounted above the cell, along the front glass plate.
Both sets of electrodes extend across the entire screen. The display electrodes are arranged in horizontal rows along the screen and the address electrodes are arranged in vertical columns. As you can see in the diagram below, the vertical and horizontal electrodes form a basic grid.
To ionize the gas in a particular cell, the plasma display’s computer charges the electrodes that intersect at that cell. It does this thousands of times in a small fraction of a second, charging each cell in turn.
For more detail: How Plasma Displays Work