What Are the States of Matter?

August 20, 2022 - Emily Newton

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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 tdehem 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° 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.

Changing States: Phase Transitions

The four primary states of matter don’t always stay the same. Phase transitions occur when one state of matter transitions to another one.  There are eight primary ways that this can occur.

The Effects of Temperature

When you apply heat to a solid and it becomes a liquid, this is known as melting.  You don’t need high temperatures to melt something — ice is a solid that melts into liquid water at just above 32°F. On the opposite side of the coin, you have freezing when a liquid becomes a solid. All liquids except for liquid helium solidify when they get cold enough to reach their freezing point. 

We’re back to heat now.  Applying heat to a liquid until it shifts to a gaseous state is a phase transition known as vaporization. The steam that makes your kettle whistle is the perfect example of vaporization.  When that vapor turns back into liquid, it’s known as condensation.  This usually occurs when the vapor comes into contact with something cold enough to return it to a liquid state. 

Deposition and Sublimation

Sometimes it’s possible to skip the middle stage of phase transitions altogether.  It is possible for a gas to become a solid, or a solid to become a gas.  The former is called deposition and is most often used in creating silver-backed mirrors, where silver vapor is suspended in a chamber until it can be evenly applied to a surface.  The latter is called sublimation, which we see most often in dry ice. 

Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, which is very difficult to get into a liquid state under normal circumstances.  When it begins to melt, it skips the liquid stage altogether, returning directly to its gaseous state. Sublimation is also what happens inside freeze dryers — introducing a vacuum to frozen food as it slowly heats up allows the water within to sublimate, creating the perfect survival foods for long-term storage.

A Look at Ionization and Recombination

Now we get to play with plasma again. Ionization occurs when a gas ignites and becomes plasma.  You can see this first hand in plasma ball toys — which is also why they won’t work anymore if you crack the glass or let the gasses escape. Recombination occurs when plasma is allowed to return to its gaseous state. Neon signs are the perfect example of recombination. When the sign is on, electricity reacts with the noble gasses to create plasma.  When it’s turned off, the plasma is allowed to return to its gaseous state until needed again.

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?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally on October 1, 2020, and was updated on August 20, 2022, to provide additional information about phase transitions.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.


Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.

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