Research center to free chemistry from Earth's bonds

October 8, 2008

A new research center combining the tools of chemistry and astronomy will use the unique laboratory of interstellar space to free the study of basic chemistry from the restrictive bonds of Earth.

The Center for Chemistry of the Universe will allow scientists to explore new types of chemical reactions that occur under the extreme conditions of space. The center will combine laboratory experiments, theoretical studies, and radio-telescope observations to dramatically expand our understanding of the processes that build molecules that may "seed" young planets with the building blocks of life.

The Center forges a unique research collaboration among leading scientists in the field of astrochemistry from the University of Arizona, The Ohio State University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and a group of chemists and physicists at the University of Virginia engaged in research to understand the fundamentals of chemical reactions.

"We hope to answer some very basic questions, such as just how did the molecules that ultimately became us get their start?" said Brooks Pate, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Virginia (UVa) and leader of the team that will form the new center. The team received an initial grant of $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to form the center during the next two years. If the NSF then fully approves the initiative, the foundation will provide funding of $4 million per year for up to ten years.

The new center will bring together laboratory researchers, theoreticians, and observers using radio telescopes of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Arizona Radio Observatory (ARO). The group of chemists participating in the center have discovered more than half of the new interstellar molecules identified worldwide in the past 18 months.

The NRAO operates the giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, which has been used to discover ten new interstellar molecules in the past three years, a record unmatched by any other telescope. The NRAO also is the North American partner in the international Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project. ALMA is expected to provide an unprecedented ability to study interstellar chemistry when it goes online in 2012.

"A central theme of chemistry is to understand how chemical reactions work. Most of our current knowledge of how molecules are formed came from laboratory experiments with solutions. However, in interstellar space, reactions occur in gases and on surfaces, such as on tiny cosmic dust grains. We're going to focus on studying these poorly-understood processes, and thus break chemistry out of our Earth-bound constraints," said Philip Jewell, Deputy Director of the NRAO, and one of the team members.

"The combination of experimentalists, theoreticians and radio-telescope observers will allow quick feedback and testing of new ideas and better understanding of what we see in our own and other galaxies," said Anthony Remijan of the NRAO.

The new center also will pursue an extensive educational effort, including student programs, new courses at UVa, and displays and outreach activities at the NRAO's Green Bank Science Center and other museums.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Explore further: High-performance computing helps chemists sort through cellular statistics

Related Stories

Acetic acid as a proton shuttle in gold chemistry

July 24, 2015

A recently published study gives a vivid example of unusual chemical reactivity associated with organogold complexes. Using modern physical methods and computational studies, the authors propose a reaction mechanism in which ...

Finding the origins of life in a drying puddle (w/ Video)

July 20, 2015

Anyone who's ever noticed a water puddle drying in the sun has seen an environment that may have driven the type of chemical reactions that scientists believe were critical to the formation of life on the early Earth.

Spintronics just got faster

July 20, 2015

In a tremendous boost for spintronic technologies, EPFL scientists have shown that electrons can jump through spins much faster than previously thought.

Recommended for you

First detection of lithium from an exploding star

July 29, 2015

The chemical element lithium has been found for the first time in material ejected by a nova. Observations of Nova Centauri 2013 made using telescopes at ESO's La Silla Observatory, and near Santiago in Chile, help to explain ...

Dense star clusters shown to be binary black hole factories

July 29, 2015

The coalescence of two black holes—a very violent and exotic event—is one of the most sought-after observations of modern astronomy. But, as these mergers emit no light of any kind, finding such elusive events has been ...

New names and insights at Ceres

July 29, 2015

Colorful new maps of Ceres, based on data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, showcase a diverse topography, with height differences between crater bottoms and mountain peaks as great as 9 miles (15 kilometers).


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.