Storing large quantities of energy is one of the greatest challenges facing utility-scale renewable sources like wind and solar. Battery technology has significantly advanced in recent years, but still remains relatively expensive. Researchers have been working on various methods of storing energy, like vanadium flow batteries, and now engineers at the University of Missouri have made a breakthrough that allows them to create and control plasma, which could have wide-ranging implications for generating and storing energy.

“Besides liquid, gas and solid, matter has a fourth state, known as plasma. Fire and lightning are familiar forms of plasma. Life on Earth depends on the energy emitted by plasma produced during fusion reactions within the sun,” MU said in a statement.

“Launching plasma in open air is the ‘Holy Grail’ in the field of physics,” said Randy Curry, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering. “Creating plasma in a vacuum tube surrounded by powerful electromagnets is no big deal; dozens of labs can do that. Our innovation allows the plasma to hold itself together while it travels through regular air without any need for containment.”

The research was partially funded by the Department of Defense, but government spending cuts known at the ‘sequester’ are putting further advancements in jeopardy. “The sequester’s funding cuts threaten America’s ability to compete in the future of energy technology. Not only will research not be advanced, a new generation of Americans won’t be trained to take the reins of American engineering leadership,” Curry said in the statement.

A short video about the plasma breakthrough accompanies this post.