Phase resolved optical emission spectroscopy, with high temporal resolution, shows that wave-particle interactions play a fundamental role in sustaining capacitively coupled rf plasmas. The measurements are in excellent agreement with a simple particle-in-cell simulation. Excitation and ionization mechanisms are dominated by beam-like electrons, energized through the advancing and retreating electric fields of the rf sheath. The associated large-amplitude electron waves, driven by a form of two-stream instability, result in power dissipation through electron trapping and phase mixing.

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