In Star Trek, a quantum filament is a type of spatial
anomaly which can be hundreds of meters long. They are very difficult
to detect because they have almost no mass. If a filament came into
direct contact with a starship, it would cause severe systems damage.
Only when a filament was in close proximity of a ship could the
on-board sensors detect it because of its subspace distortions and
high-energy particles. The USS Enterprise-D ran into several quantum
filaments in 2368 (stardate 45156.1) and suffered a major power loss.
Several crewmembers were killed or injured and with the emergency
bulkheads closed due to the isolation protocol, they were trapped in
various parts of the ship. The Enterprise was also in danger of losing
antimatter containment, but the crew managed to restore power before
this could occur. (TNG: "Disaster")
In real astrophysics, there are a few phenomena which
are called filaments. They are the largest known structures in the
universe, thread-like structures with a typical length of 50 to 80 h-1
megaparsecs that form the boundaries between large voids in the
universe. Filaments consist of gravitationally-bound galaxies; parts
where a large number of galaxies are very close to each other are
called superclusters. In 2006, scientists announced the discovery of
three filaments aligned to form the largest structure known to
humankind, composed of densely-packed galaxies and enormous blobs of
gas known as Lyman alpha blobs.
There are also solar filaments - these are large feature
extending outward from the Sun's surface, often in a loop
configuration, comprising of cool plasma that appears darker than its
background (due to the lower temperature of the plasma).
However, the phenomena that is perhaps closest to the
Star Trek quantum filament is the plasma filament. More commonly called
Birkeland currents, a plasma filament generally refers to any electric
current in a space plasma, but more specifically when charged particles
in the current follow magnetic field lines. They are caused by the
movement of a plasma perpendicular to a magnetic field. These currents
often show filamentary, or twisted "rope-like" magnetic structure. Many
structures in the universe exhibiting filamentation are due to plasma
filaments, such as the Earth's Aurora, Venus Flux ropes, Cometary
tails, the Sun's coronal streamers and various nebulae.
The novelty plasma lamp is a simple illustration of
filamentation. The colors and patterns in a plasma lamp are a result of
relaxation of electrons in excited states to lower energy states after
they have recombined with ions. These processes emit light in a
spectrum characteristic of the gas being excited.