Field of Science

Grapes of Wrath

My youngest came home from a father-son event with a new interest in healthy foods. I put grapes on the table with dinner. "There are grapes for dinner," he exclaimed. Who are you and what have you done with son? ran through my mind.

At the end of dinner he puts two grapes on his plate and carefully cuts them nearly in half. Then he ducks into the kitchen. "Come on, Mom!" Warm grapes? He'd eaten all the chicken, there was nothing left on his plate to veronique.

He hits the start button and suddenly the grapes start arcing, and one actually bursts momentarily into flame. I'm stunned. No metal, but the arcing is clear. We try various experiments - do you have to leave the grapes connected (no), does it work with other things (carrots), can you char a grape (yes).

What's going on? Hang on, we were producing plasmas in the kitchen. Not the kind that circulates in your veins, but the kind that stars are made out of. Plasma is often called the 4th phase of matter - the iconic triad being solid, liquid and gas. (There are many other phases in which substances can exist, in fact - such as liquid crystals and supercritical fluids.)

Plasmas are gases in which a large number of electron are "free", rather than associated with a molecule or atom.

I'm still trying to come to grips with the idea that I can create a (very tiny) ball of plasma in my kitchen.

(Read more in the paper : "Microwave Mischief and Madness" by H. Hosack, N. Marler, D. MacIsaac of Northern Arizona University, The Physics Teacher 40, 14 (2002).