In physical and chemical usage, plasma refers to an ionized gas, in which a certain proportion of electrons are free, rather than being bound to an atom or molecule. The ability of the positive and negative charges to move somewhat independently makes the plasma electrically conductive so that it responds strongly to electromagnetic fields. Plasma therefore has properties quite unlike those of solids, liquids or gases and is considered to be a distinct state of matter. Plasma typically takes the form of neutral gas-like clouds (e.g. stars).
Although a plasma is loosely described as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles, a definition can have three criteria:
1. The plasma approximation: Charged particles must be close enough together that each particle influences many nearby charged particles, rather than just interacting with the closest particle (these collective effects are a distinguishing feature of a plasma). The plasma approximation is valid when the number of electrons within the sphere of influence (called the Debye sphere whose radius is the Debye screening length) of a particular particle is large. The average number of particles in the Debye sphere is given by the plasma parameter, "Λ" (the Greek letter Lambda).
2. Bulk interactions: The Debye screening length (defined above) is short compared to the physical size of the plasma. This criterion means that interactions in the bulk of the plasma are more important than those at its edges, where boundary effects may take place.
3. Plasma frequency: The electron plasma frequency (measuring plasma oscillations of the electrons) is large compared to the electron-neutral collision frequency (measuring frequency of collisions between electrons and neutral particles). When this condition is valid, plasmas act to shield charges very rapidly (quasineutrality is another defining property of plasmas).
Lightning is an example of plasma present at Earth's surface.