Recreating interstellar ions with lasers

Published July 5, 2017

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

Until now.

MSU's Marcos Dantus and his team have unlocked the secret of H3+, the molecule of the universe, by duplicating the mechanisms that form it from organic molecules.

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 the MSU Departments of Chemistry and Physics and Astronomy in the College of Natural Science, 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 chemical 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 reaction, 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 chemical reactions.

MSU scientists who contributed to this collaborative research are: 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 are: Balram Kaderiya, Peyman Feizollah, Bethany Jochim, Travis Severt, Ben Berry, Kanaka Raju, Kevin Carnes, Shashank Pathak, Daniel Rolles, Artem Rudenko and Itzik Ben-Itzhak.

This collaborative research was funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.