Scientists used lasers to blast plastic, transforming it into tiny diamonds and a new type of water.
Lasers can transform common plastic into tiny diamonds, according to new research inspired by ice giants like Neptune and Uranus.
Scientists used ultrapowerful lasers to blast cheap plastic and transform it into tiny “nanodiamonds,” confirming the existence of an exotic new type of water.
The findings could lead to the discovery of diamond rain on ice giants in our solar system, as well as an explanation for why these frigid worlds have such strange magnetic fields. The laser-blasting technique may also have more practical applications.
Nanodiamonds are diamonds that are only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) in size. They have both existing and potential applications, such as converting carbon dioxide into other gases and delivering drugs into the body, according to study co-author Dominik Kraus, a physicist at Germany’s Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf.
An intriguing experiment with intriguing implications for ice giant planets
Diamonds have long been suspected to form within the frigid interiors of ice giants such as Neptune and Uranus, according to planetary scientists.
If these diamonds do form, they will “rain” through the frozen worlds’ interiors.
To test the feasibility of this process, the researchers heated a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic — the type found in plastic bottles — with a high-powered optical laser found at the Matter in Extreme Conditions instrument in the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Linac Coherent Light Source (6,000 degrees Celsius).
For billionths of a second, pressures millions of times greater than those of Earth’s atmosphere were created. This bone-crushing pressure shocked the plastic, causing its carbon atoms to reconfigure into a crystalline structure with hydrogen and oxygen drifting through it.
“We could look inside the sample and create movies of the chemical reactions happening there using a powerful X-ray laser,” Kraus explained. “Within the timescale of our experiments — just a few nanoseconds — we saw very efficient formation of nanodiamonds inside the compressed plastics.”
The new study suggests that this type of diamond formation is more common than scientists previously thought, raising the possibility that ice giants may have thick layers of diamonds surrounding their solid cores.
The experiment also strongly suggests that at the high temperatures and pressures found inside such icy worlds, an exotic state of water known as superionic water ice emerges.
This unusual type of water allows protons to move through an oxygen atom lattice. If such superionic water exists on ice giants like Uranus and Neptune, Kraus believes that the movement of protons through this exotic type of matter may contribute to the strange magnetic fields observed on those planets.
Previous calculations suggested that the carbon atoms found in the interiors of planets would make any superionic water that formed extremely unstable.
“Our experiments now show that carbon and water are demixing [unintentional separation of the substances in a mixture] via diamond formation,” Kraus explained. “As a result, isolated water can exist inside the planets, increasing the likelihood of superionic water formation.”
And a spacecraft may soon be able to visit our icy neighbors to see if diamond rain and exotic water exist there.
“Hopefully, a new NASA space probe will be launched to Uranus within the next decade, as just defined as the highest priority by the decadal survey,” Kraus said.
The discoveries may also have more commercial applications. At the moment, nanodiamonds are created by detonating carbon or blasting larger diamonds to bits with explosives, resulting in a jumble of different-sized diamonds. According to Kraus, the new method would be a cleaner way to create diamonds of specific sizes.
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