We didn’t start the fire

Engsiong Tan
2 min readMar 6, 2022


Simple explanation about plasma

When I was a child, I was taught that there were four states of matter instead of three. Gas, liquid, solid and plasma. Plasma was supposed to be the state that fire was¹. It was explained in vague exotic terms. What caught my eye was that it was mentioned in sci-fi novels as a future weapon.

Plasma is a gas given extra energy. The gas molecules will get more collisions which results in losing or gaining electrons. When this number of atoms gain and losing electrons reach a state that can conduct electricity, you have plasma². In case you are wondering, lightning is plasma.

Cold Plasma

So when I got my plasma lighter, I was thinking that I could be combusting things that regular butane lighters could not. Then I learnt about cold plasma. Now, I need to point out that cold plasma can be in the temperature of hot water or boiling water. The reason has that the energy could be stored in the electrons while the nucleus was near ambient temperature³.

In the case of the plasma lighter, things eventually ignited but they were combusting in minutes. Plasma was supposed to the heart of the sun. In my case, it was more of magnifying glass in the sun.

The best part of cold plasma is that people are now able to bring down the temperature to room temperature. This has the potential to create unique surgical tools. The short version is that cancer cells died after exposure to room temperature plasma.

Not plasma cannon

If you like waving lighters at concerts, this plasma lighter is not for you. I doubt that it will have enough juice to reach the chorus. Its arc is also pretty short so it is not as visible as a naked flame.

That is an image from a thermal camera. The blood red spot is the plasma arc. The two yellow spots behind are my glasses.

Author’s face using thermal sensor

Yet when the lighter was held closer to my face, the sensor could not detect the arc. I had exactly the same let down when I learnt that people once had nuclear devices⁴ implanted in them.

¹ While there are some cases when fire is plasma, normal fires at lower temperature are just exothermic oxidation.

² This ability to conduct electricity is why fusion reactors use plasma. The plasma is used to contain the fusion reaction without melting the reactor.

³The “weapons” grade plasma has the nucleus at a higher temperature than the electrons.

⁴Pace makers powered by nuclear batteries. Not nuclear reactors so there is no risk of the person blowing up.