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Science And Nature

Diamond rains could fall through the inside of ice giant planets

An illustration of diamond rain inside an ice giant planet.

An illustration of diamond rain in a ice giant planet.(Image credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

An exotic type of precipitation called ‘diamond rain’ long considered to occur deep within ice giant planets could possibly be more prevalent than previously thought.

A team of researchers has attempted material much like that found within ice giants like the solar system planets Neptune and Uranus, discovering that the current presence of oxygen escalates the chance for diamond formation and that diamonds can form in low temperatures and pressures.

Which means that diamonds could grow in an array of conditions throughout these frigid worlds. Consequently, this might make the opportunity of diamond showers raining through the interiors of ice giants much more likely.

Related: Yes, there’s really ‘diamond rain’ on Uranus and Neptune

Exactly the same experiments also discovered the forming of an exotic type of water which could help explain the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune that have so far confused astronomers.

The study could change our picture of ice giants, theorized by some scientists to be probably the most common types of exoplanets planets beyond your solar system.

The team of scientists, including researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory along with from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the University of Rostock, built on previous research in to the conditions and materials within ice giants that observed diamond rains because they formed.

The brand new research predicts that diamonds on Neptune and Uranus could grow to large sizes, potentially around an incredible number of carats in weight.

Ice giants lack a good surface but get denser heading towards the core, and therefore over a large number of years the diamonds could sink through ice layers. They might commence to accumulate round the solid heart of the planets forming a thick diamond layer.

Hubble Space Telescope images of Uranus (left) and Neptune showing their different blue colors.

Hubble Space Telescope images of Uranus (left) and Neptune showing their different blue colors. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL team)

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Additionally, the team discovered that a novel phase of water called superionic water and sometimes known as ‘hot black ice’ formed alongside the diamonds.

Superionic water exists at high temperatures and pressures where water molecules split up with oxygen constituents forming a crystal lattice throughout which hydrogen nuclei float freely.

The hydrogen nuclei are positively charged and therefore superionic water can conduct electric energy which could bring about magnetic fields. This may explain the unusual magnetic fields seen around Uranus and Neptune.

“Our experiment demonstrates how these elements can transform the conditions where diamonds are forming on ice giants,” SLAC scientist and team member, Silvia Pandolfi, said in a statement. (opens in new tab) “If you want to accurately model planets, then we have to get as close once we can to the specific composition of the planetary interior.”

A far more complicated picture of diamond formation

Siegfried Glenzer, director of the High Energy Density Division at SLAC, explained that the problem inside planets like ice giants is complicated because there are lots of chemicals to factor in to the formation of diamonds.

“The sooner paper was the very first time that people directly saw diamond formation from any mixtures,” Glenzer said “Since that time, there were a great deal of experiments with different pure materials. What we wished to find out here was what type of effect these additional chemicals have.”

Although team started their experiments utilizing a plastic material made up of a variety of hydrogen and carbon, elements commonly within ice giants, the newest iteration saw this replaced with PET plastic.

Familiar to us on the planet from its uses in packaging, bottles, and containers, PET may be used to more accurately replicate the conditions found within ice giants.

“PET includes a good balance between carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to simulate the experience in ice planets,” HZDR physicist and the University of Rostock professor Dominik Kraus said.

Creating shockwaves in your pet with a high-powered optical laser area of the Matter in Extreme Conditions (MEC) instrument at SLAC the team could probe that which was happening in the plastic using X-ray pulses from Linac Coherent SOURCE OF LIGHT (LCLS).

This allowed them to witness atoms within your pet arrange themselves into diamond-shaped regions, measuring the speed of which these regions grew.

Along with discovering the diamond-shaped regions grew to scales of around several nanometers wide, the scientists also discovered that the current presence of oxygen in your pet meant the nanodiamonds grew at lower pressures and lower temperatures than had previously been seen.

“The result of the oxygen was to accelerate the splitting of the carbon and hydrogen and therefore encourage the forming of nanodiamonds,” Kraus said. “It meant the carbon atoms could combine easier and form diamonds.”

Nanodiamonds: good stuff can be found in small packages

The study may potentially point the best way to a new approach to fabricating diamonds with a size below 1 micrometer referred to as ‘nanodiamonds’ that could be produced when cheap PET plastic is hit with laser-driven shock compression.

“Just how nanodiamonds are made is by firmly taking a lot of carbon or diamond and blowing it up with explosives,” SLAC scientist and team collaborator, Benjamin Ofori-Okai, said.” This creates nanodiamonds of varied shapes and sizes and is hard to regulate. What we’re seeing in this experiment is really a different reactivity of exactly the same species under temperature and pressure.”

Ofori-Okai added laser production can offer a cleaner and much more easily controlled solution to produce nanodiamonds. “If we are able to design methods to change some reasons for having the reactivity, we are able to change how quickly they form and for that reason what size they get,” he continued.

Nanodiamonds have an abundance of potential applications in medicine, including in drug delivery, noninvasive surgery, and medical sensors, in addition to in the growing field of quantum technology. This implies the scientists’ findings may have major implications could nearer to home compared to the ice giants that lurk at the solar system’s outskirts.

The scientists involved with this research will now attempt experiments using liquid samples containing chemicals such as for example ethanol, water, and ammonia, a few of the main constituents of ice giants to obtain a better picture of what’s occurring under the frozen atmospheres of the frigid worlds.

“The truth that we are able to recreate these extreme conditions to observe how these procedures play from very fast, really small scales is exciting,” SLAC scientist and collaborator Nicholas Hartley, said. “Adding oxygen brings us closer than ever before to seeing the entire picture of the planetary processes, but there’s still more work to be achieved.

“It is a step on the highway towards obtaining the most realistic mixture and seeing how these materials truly behave on other planets.”

The team’s research is published in the most recent edition of the journal Science Advances (opens in new tab).

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RobertLeais a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have already been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, ABOUT Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

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