States of Matter
Solids are formed when the attractive forces between individual molecules are greater than the energy causing them to move apart. Individual molecules are locked in position near each other, and cannot move past one another. The atoms or molecules of solids remain in motion. However, that motion is limited to vibrational energy; individual molecules stay fixed in place and vibrate next to each other. As the temperature of a solid is increased, the amount of vibration increases, but the solid retains its shape and volume because the molecules are locked in place relative to each other. To view an example of this, click on the animation below which shows the molecular structure of ice crystals.
Liquids are formed when the energy (usually in the form of heat) of a system is increased and the rigid structure of the solid state is broken down. In liquids, molecules can move past one another and bump into other molecules; however, they remain relatively close to each other like solids. Often in liquids, intermolecular forces (such as the hydrogen bonds shown in the animation below) pull molecules together and are quickly broken. As the temperature of a liquid is increased, the amount of movement of individual molecules increases. As a result, liquids can “flow” to take the shape of their container but they cannot be easily compressed because the molecules are already close together. Thus, liquids have an undefined shape, but a defined volume. In the example animation below, we see that liquid water is made up of molecules that can freely move past one another, yet remain relatively close in distance to each other.
Gases are formed when the energy in the system exceeds all of the attractive forces between molecules. Thus gas molecules have little interaction with each other beyond occasionally bumping into one another. In the gas state, molecules move quickly and are free to move in any direction, spreading out long distances. As the temperature of a gas increases, the amount of movement of individual molecules increases. Gases expand to fill their containers and have low density. Because individual molecules are widely separated and can move around easily in the gas state, gases can be compressed easily and they have an undefined shape.
Solids, liquids, and gases are the most common states of matter that exist on our planet. If you would like to compare the three states to one another, click on the comparison animation below. Note the differences in molecular motion of water molecules in these three states.
Plasmas are hot, ionized gases. Plasmas are formed under conditions of extremely high energy, so high, in fact, that molecules are ripped apart and only free atoms exist. More astounding, plasmas have so much energy that the outer electrons are actually ripped off of individual atoms, thus forming a gas of highly energetic, charged ions. Because the atoms in plasma exist as charged ions, plasmas behave differently than gases, thus representing a fourth state of matter. Plasmas can be commonly seen simply by looking upward; the high energy conditions that exist in stars such as our sun force individual atoms into the plasma state.