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Physical Chemistry

Molecular Plasmas Created

Ultracold plasmas made of molecules could explain how stars make metals from gasses

by Jyllian N. Kemsley
December 1, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 48

A method for making ultracold plasmas out of molecules has been developed by a group led by Edward R. Grant, a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, in Canada (Phys. Rev. Lett. 2008, 101, 205005). Previously, such plasmas could only be made from atoms in group 1 or 2. The molecular plasmas are created by cooling a jet of gaseous material to 1 K and then ionizing it with a laser. Although Grant and colleagues worked with nitric oxide, the approach should theoretically work for any volatile substance, opening up a new field of study into the chemistry of plasmatic matter. Using the NO system, the researchers found that their plasma was composed of electrons and NO+ ions with a density on the order of 1012 cm-3—about three times denser than ultracold atomic plasmas. The molecules in the plasma also appeared to behave more like a liquid than a gas. Studying such systems could provide information on how stars make metals from gases; understanding electron transport and interactions in ultracold plasmas could provide insight into superconductivity, Grant says.


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