Superionic ice, a new state of matter confirmed

An incredible discovery could revolutionize what we know about the states of matter and provide explanations for the mysterious magnetic fields of moons and planets in the solar system, even providing the scientists new elements for the search for extraterrestrial life or for the simple understanding of some phenomena that to date have no clear explanation.

A team of scientists led by study co-author Vitali Prakapenka, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, managed to stabilize water in a new state whose characteristics were theorized in 1988 by chemistry professor Pierfranco Demontis, researcher at the University of Sassari, and observed in a fleeting way in the 2018 by re seekers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. It is called superionic ice and until now no one had managed to stabilize it beyond 20 nanoseconds before it dissolved, but now it has succeeded to overcome this barrier and the results shared in a study published in Nature Physics (in SOURCE

) are in some ways astounding.

We are used to considering only 3 phases of water, namely the gaseous one, liquid and solid, but to all intents and purposes scientists have identified to date at least 20 phases related to the solid one, or frozen if we prefer. Each phase has different arrangements of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms which vary according to the different temperatures and pressures to which the molecules are subjected. From previous observations we know for example that with the VI and VII states of the ice the molecules are arranged respectively in prisms and rectangular cubes, but the fact that other states also change interactions with electric fields or exhibit unexpected behaviors.

The superionic ice represents the eighteenth phase electrons become positively charged ions free to flow as they would in a fluid.

In this new phase the hydrogen atoms can migrate while oxygen v to create a verse and its own expanding lattice. This particularity causes the superionic ice to present a typical blackish appearance.

During the tests of the 2018 it was possible to stabilize the superionic ice for only 20 nanoseconds before it dissolved, too little to grasp its characteristics, but enough to measure its electrical conductivity and glimpse its structure. To do this, the researchers used a laser to hit a drop of water, generating a shock wave that reached the temperature and pressure necessary for the purpose.

But more detailed measurements were needed and this is where the team of scientists led by Prakapenka came into play. It was therefore decided to to pressurize a drop of water using a 0.2 carat diamond anvil and to use a laser beam to detonate it. The hardness of the material used allowed the anvil to pressurize the drop to a value about 3.5 million times higher than that of the earth’s atmospheric pressure, while the laser did it heated to temperatures higher than those found on the surface of the sun .

At that point, thanks to an electron accelerator, an instrument known as a synchrotron, the drop was bombarded with x-rays, whose diffusion analysis allowed the researchers to identify the structure of the superionic ice . From the previous measurement interval expressed in nanoseconds (billionths of a second) we have moved on to the more comfortable microseconds (millionths of a second), a significant time to more accurately track the transition of the water drop to the superionic ice phase. This is an amazing result that will allow us to better study the phenomenon.

But this is only the beginning and we will proceed in this direction to carry out more in-depth analyzes, for example on the conditions in which the different phases of ice can be recreated in nature without external intervention. Then there are some side effects that must absolutely be taken into consideration, we know for example that free floating hydrogen ions are able to create magnetic fields , and perhaps this feature could be the basis of the magnetism of some planets such as Neptune or Uranus, or even moons such as Jupiter and Europa.

Could superionic ice be buried in the bowels of some celestial bodies? This is one of the many questions we want to answer, and since magnetospheres are the first protection from stellar radiation they could be a useful parameter in the search for alien life in the universe.

But the research work to be done on superionic ice is still long and there are several properties to be explored on this state of matter, for example, we know very little about its viscosity, chemical stability and conductivity à, all important information to understand any natural formation mechanisms.

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