states of matter

What Are the States of Matter?

Read Time: 5 minutes

You matter. Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared. 

Then you energy. 

Pause for a laugh. 

Everything around you consists of matter in its various states, from the phone in your hand to the chair beneath you. Even you are made up of matter. 

Matter exists in up to eight different states, though only four of them occur naturally. What are the different states of matter, and where can you see them in your daily life?

What Is Matter?

We know that everything is made of mater, but what is matter? To answer that question, we need to look at the materials that make up everything in the universe — subatomic particles. 

Everything we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch consists of three basic elements — protons, neutrons and electrons. Each atom has a nucleus with positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. These atoms also have shells that surround the nucleus and are filled with negatively charged electrons that can move from atom to atom. 

The movement of these atoms determines the state of matter. What does each of these states look like?

Immovable Solids

First, we’ll take a closer look at solids. When we zoom in on an atomic level, we see that the atoms that make up the solid objects in your home and the world around you don’t move much — or at all. They’re incredibly dense, with tightly packed particles that don’t have any room to wiggle around. 

This doesn’t mean the atoms in solids aren’t moving at all. On the contrary, these atoms do vibrate. But because there are so many of them in a small space, they can’t travel around. Many elements turn into solids when they reach a low enough temperature. Ice, for example, is the solid form of water that occurs at temperatures below 32 degrees F. 

Changeable Liquids

Next, we’ve got the second state of matter — liquids. If you’re drinking a glass of water, soda or any other beverage, then you have a liquid in your cup. They have volume and take the shape of whatever container you put them in. This form tends to be the middle state of matter. Gasses might become liquids as they cool. Solids might become liquid as they heat up. 

The atoms in liquids can speed up and slow down depending on their temperature, but they won’t condense enough to form solids unless there are dramatic changes in temperature. Liquids are less dense than solids, and the atoms can move freely, but they are difficult to compress. 

Amorphous Gases

As atoms speed up, they move into the third state of matter — gas. These particles have a lot of kinetic energy and travel around incredibly fast. Gases have no shape and also lack volume, so if you release them from their container, the gaseous atoms will dissipate into the atmosphere. 

Unlike liquids, you can compress gases. You’ll find compressed gases — from oxygen and nitrogen to propane and other fuels — in tanks in all sorts of different situations. Take a deep breath. The air you breathe consists of many gases. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon and trace amounts of other gases. The steam whistling from a tea kettle is water in its gaseous form. 

Incendiary Plasma

The last naturally occurring state of matter isn’t something you’ll often find on this planet. It becomes more common once you leave the atmosphere, though. According to scientists at the Jefferson Laboratory, it may be the most abundant form of matter in the universe. If you look up into the night sky, most of the little dots you see are examples of the fourth state of matter. Stars are just burning balls of plasma hanging in the void. 

There are ways to produce small amounts of plasma here on Earth, but they’re not always the safest option. Exposing foods like grapes to microwave radiation will generate plasma in your microwave — but you’ll probably destroy the appliance in the process.

Bonus: Bose-Einstein Condensate

We’ve studied the four primary states of matter for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that we discovered and created the fifth state of matter in a lab. The process of creating it can be quite complicated — it doesn’t occur in nature. First, you take some pure atoms of your favorite element. Then you cool them down to just above absolute zero. At this incredibly low temperature, the individual particles have almost no energy to move around. 

This super-cooled state turns the element into something beyond the solid state. A Bose-Einstein condensate happens when the particles become so similar that they act like one giant super-atom. 

Bonus: A Few Extra States

As science progresses, we keep finding new states of matter, though you’ll only find them in a lab or the depths of space. Fermionic condensates are similar to the Bose-Einstein condensates, taking atoms down to even lower temperatures to create superconductors. Scientists discovered this state of matter in 2003. 

As we look up to the stars, we find two different states of matter. Quark-gluon plasma is one of the oldest states of matter, existing for just a few milliseconds after the big bang and the birth of the universe. Physicists finally managed to replicate this evidence of the beginning of the universe. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory collided gold ions so fast that they approached the speed of light. This state of matter reaches temperatures of nearly 4 trillion C. 

Then, at the core of massive stars, we’ve found degenerate matter — super-compressed gas that acts like a solid. Degenerate stars are smaller but contain more mass than regular stars of the same size. 

The Many States of Matter

You might have learned about the four natural states of matter, but they’re not the only ones existing in the universe — and there may be many more we have yet to discover. Take a look around — what solids, liquids and gases can you identify in the world around you?

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Category: Chemistry

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.