Recreating interstellar ions with lasers

July 5, 2017 by Layne Cameron , Marcos Dantus, Michigan State University
MSU's Marcos Dantus has recreated interstellar ions with lasers. Credit: MSU

Trihydrogen, or H3+, has been called the molecule that made the universe, where it plays a greater role in astrochemistry than any other molecule. While H3+ is astronomically abundant, no scientist understood the mechanisms that form it from organic molecules.

Until now.

Using lasers, Michigan State University scientists have unlocked the secret and published their results in the current issue of Nature Scientific Reports. In a basement laboratory on campus, Marcos Dantus, University Distinguished Professor in chemistry and physics, and his team essentially duplicated the mechanism that's found from the center of the galaxy to Earth's own ionosphere.

The scientists found H3+ when they used a strong-field laser to initiate a reaction and a second femtosecond laser to probe its progress. These interactions often lead to exotic reactions. In this case, it unexpectedly revealed the phantom mechanisms of H3+.

"We found that a roaming H2 molecule is responsible for the chemical reaction, producing H3+; roaming chemistry is extremely new and little is known about it," Dantus said. "This is the first documented case for a roaming H2 reaction, which is significant because roaming mechanisms are a budding chapter of chemistry – one that may provide explanations for unlikely and unexplained chemical reactions."

One reason for the dearth of knowledge is that the process happens in near immeasurable time. The entire , involving cleavage and formation of three chemical bonds, takes between 100 or 240 femtoseconds. That's less time than it takes a bullet to travel the width of an atom, Dantus added.

How the roaming H2 molecule extracts the proton to evolve to H3+ is nothing short of astounding, according to the scientists. A neutral H2 molecule is formed upon ionization of an organic molecule, and it roams around the remaining ion until it finds an acidic proton. Once targeted, it then extracts the proton, and collects it to transform into the most abundant ion in the universe.

"We were able to duplicate in our lab what's happening in the cosmos as we speak," Dantus said. "Understanding this mechanism and its timescale takes us one step closer to understanding the chemical reactions that created the building blocks of life in the universe."

Future research will focus on the effect of molecular size and structure on the likelihood and timing of roaming .

MSU scientists who contributed to this collaborative research include: Nagitha Ekanayake, Muath Nairat, Christopher Mancuso, B. Scott Fales, James Jackson and Benjamin Levine.

Researchers from Kansas State University also were part of the team: Balram Kaderiya, Peyman Feizollah, Bethany Jochim, Travis Severt, Ben Berry, Kanaka Raju, Kevin Carnes, Shashank Pathak, Daniel Rolles, Artem Rudenko and Itzik Ben-Itzhak.

Explore further: With more light, chemistry speeds up

More information: Nagitha Ekanayake et al. Mechanisms and time-resolved dynamics for trihydrogen cation (H3 +) formation from organic molecules in strong laser fields, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04666-w ,

Related Stories

With more light, chemistry speeds up

May 5, 2017

Light initiates many chemical reactions. Experiments at the aser Centre of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Warsaw's Faculty of Physics have, for the first time, ...

How solvent molecules cooperate in reactions

October 6, 2016

Molecules from the solvent environment that at first glance seem to be uninvolved can be essential for chemical reactions. This has been shown by researchers studying the formation of an ether in pure solvents and in their ...

Steering chemical reactions with laser pulses

April 23, 2014

With ultra-short laser pulses, chemical reactions can be controlled at the Vienna University of Technology. Electrons have little mass and are therefore influenced by the laser, whereas the atomic nuclei are much heavier ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...


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.