Scientists Fired Lasers Into Diamonds And Stumbled Upon A New State Of Matter

Image via Vitali Prakapenka for the University of Chicago

In school, kids are taught the three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. And the biggest conundrum would be non-Newtonian fluids, which can be both liquids and solids.

Oh, simpler days. Because now, a team of scientists from the University of Chicago is saying that that a “strange” new state of matter has been created in the lab, and it’s called “superionic ice.”

The team fired electrons between two pieces of diamond—the hardest known material on Earth—using a particle accelerator called the Advanced Photon Source. This caused an almighty 20 gigapascals of pressure in the sample water of water used in the experiment. Then, to heat things up, they shot lasers through the diamonds. Because, of course, like all ultra-cool things, lasers are involved.

Like the best of us at times, it succumbed to the pressure. The result? A brand new structure that was able to regress when the pressure was relieved.

At first, during the process, the scientists thought that something had gone wrong somewhere in the middle since the readings weren’t showing what they had predicted. Study co-author Vitali Prakapenka recalls that he thought they had triggered some “unwanted chemical reaction.”

“But when I turned off the laser and the sample returned to room temperature, the ice went back to its original state,” he marveled. “That means it was a reversible, structural change, not a chemical reaction.”

Before we have the time to go “wow,” the solar system might already be scoffing smugly, since this type of ice may already exist on planets like Neptune, which contain extremely high temperatures and pressures—the perfect conditions for it to form.

This awe-inducing superionic ice is described as a “solid oxygen lattice sitting in an ocean of floating hydrogen atoms” by Prakapenka. Its fluctuating state (or is it states?) means that it’s less dense and darker than regular ice, since it behaves differently with light, the team details in the paper published in the journal Nature earlier in October.

However, a lot more investigation needs to be done into this material. Areas like conductivity, viscosity, and chemical stability are yet to be explored. Although we’ve known of it before, it’s not exactly like the scientists have tugged their equipment to Neptune to be able to see it up close.

“It’s a new state of matter, so it basically acts as a new material, and it may be different from what we thought,” Prakapenka affirms. After all, the material was discovered thanks to it being different to what the scientists thought, too.

[via Futurism, image via Vitali Prakapenka for the University of Chicago]