Bizarre Superionic Ice Created By Scientists For The First Time

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In this artistic rendering of the laser compression experiment, high power lasers focused on the surface of a diamond generate a sequence of shock waves that propagate throughout the sample assembly (from left to right), simultaneously compressing and heating the initially liquid water sample and forcing it to freeze into the superionic water ice phase.

Marius Millot/Federica Coppari/Sebastien Hamel/Liam Krauss

It’s weird, it’s insanely hot and it may be what water ice looks like throughout much of the universe.  Researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) zapped water with powerful lasers and managed to “flash-freeze” it into an exotic superionic state.

For decades, scientists have suspected that if water were subjected to extreme pressures and temperatures it might enter a bizarre phase in which it is neither gas nor liquid, but rather a lattice of solidified oxygen atoms that basically trap the free-flowing, liquid-like hydrogen atoms inside the new form.

Preliminary experiments last year demonstrated evidence for the first time that superionic ice is a real thing and now a team has managed to briefly create and observe a batch. The results were reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“We designed the experiments to compress the water so that it would freeze into solid ice, but it was not certain that the ice crystals would actually form and grow in the few billionths of a second that we can hold the pressure-temperature conditions,” said LLNL physicist and co-lead author Marius Millot.

To achieve this exotic flash freezing, the water was heated to thousands of degrees, approaching the temperature of the surface of the sun, while also increasing its pressure by millions of atmospheres. The resulting substance is also black and more dense than the ice cubes in your drink.

“Water is known to have many different crystalline structures known as ice Ih (regular water ice), II, III, up to XVII,” Federica Coppari, co-lead from LLNL explained. “So, we propose to call the new… solid form ‘ice XVIII.’”

While it’s not likely we’ll be using this heavy, hot ice here on Earth for much anytime soon, the research provides insight into what might be going on at other worlds.

“Because water ice at Uranus’ and Neptune’s interior conditions has a crystalline lattice, we argue that superionic ice should not flow like a liquid such as the fluid iron outer core of the Earth,” Millot said. “This can dramatically affect our understanding of the internal structure and the evolution of the icy giant planets, as well as all their numerous extrasolar cousins.”

In other words, superionic ice could actually be very common on the many ice giant planets throughout the universe.

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