Formation of superionic ice helps to detect internal structure of Neptune and Uranus

gas giant interior
The planet core of Uranus is estimated to be rock and ice encompassed by an outer layer of ice comprised of water, ammonium, and methane. (Credits - Wikimedia Commons)

The magic of science has just achieved the unachievable – the most bizarre existence of “supersonic hot ice”. It is called as such because of the peculiarity of frozen water that can remain solid even at extremely high temperature.

Extreme temperature and pressure can crush the frozen substance into increasingly odd varieties. Superionic materials are dual beasts that can exist in dual state-partly solid and liquid at the same time. It is highly conductive material that exists at high pressures such as, one and four million times more than that at sea level and temperature half as hot as the surface of the sun. These conditions are fulfilled by exoplanets like Uranus and Neptune.

After a lot of research conducted by scientists, it was found that water ice becomes hundred times more electrically more conductive. But achieving above mentioned extreme conditions was not a cake walk for scientists. The study has been published in the Nature journal. 

Marius Millot, study leader and researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California remarked that the ice sample which they have observed is at a very high temperature, ranging to thousands of degrees.

Scientists have already known that there are 17 varieties of crystalline ice and they had predicted 30 years back that water can be squeezed to superionic forms through application of extreme pressure.

For that, a set up was made in which a thin layer of water was placed between 2 diamond anvils and then six giant lasers were used to generate shockwaves at pressure up to 1 to 4 million times Earth’s atmospheric pressure and temperature between 1650 and 2760 degree Celsius. But all these could only be maintained for a fraction of a second, so physicists used lasers to blast a tiny piece of iron foil creating a wave of plasma. The X-rays showed unprecedented cubic lattice structure with oxygen at each corner and one at the face.

After these persistent and consistent experiments of scientists, they finally got a hint about the unusual tilting of the magnetic field of Neptune and Uranus. They concluded that Uranus and Neptune should have superionic ice layers that act as our planet mantle and that is responsible for their unusual magnetic field tilting at different angles.

Roberto Car, a physicist at Princeton University remarked that more investigations are needed to prove that ice is superionic, although this experiment is an important step in understanding the variableness of water.

Thus, this bizarre and unprecedented but the most thrilling creation is going to help in unpuzzling the various reasons for the origin, existence and evolution of these exoplanets.


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