WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
It can be said that science fiction writers have a love affair with black holes, and now a team of American scientists have managed to spontaneously create a molecule sized one here on Earth.
Black holes are without question the most powerful objects in the universe and their gravity is so immense that they suck in everything around them. Earlier this week, just a scant few months after scientists announced they were going to try to take the first picture of one, that’s exactly what became of a small molecule when researchers from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory blasted it with the world’s most powerful X-ray laser that turned it into an atom sucking “molecular black hole,” and at a time when scientists are openly talking about the possibility of time travel and travelling at light speed it looks like we’re on track to one day, to turn another piece of science fiction into science fact. Maybe…
For those of you who are now no doubt worried that we’ll soon start to see the beginning of yet another new arms race, but this time to create a Star Wars style black hole weapon, fear not – for now at least – because in order to create even a molecule sized black hole you need an X-ray laser that’s a hundred times more intense than what you would get if you focused all the sunlight that hits the Earth’s surface onto a thumbnail – so says Sebastien Boutet, the projects lead researcher and co-author of the paper which was published in Nature.
“That’s how strong the Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument used for this experiment is,” said Boutet, “it’s capable of releasing hard X-rays by using the highest possible energies available from the equipment.”
The researchers used special mirrors to focus the X-ray beam into a very small spot, which was a little bit over 100 nanometers in diameter, to check three types of samples with heavy atoms: individual xenon atoms (with 54 electrons each) and two types of molecules with single iodine atoms (containing 53 electrons each), but they didn’t expect the extreme effect the X-ray laser would actually have on these samples, which surpassed even their wildest projections.
When blasted with the X-ray laser beam from the Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument, the iodine molecule in question lost more than 50 of its electrons within just 30 femtoseconds, or within just millionths of a billionth of a second, and the void that was left then pulled in electrons from the rest of the molecule, which it also blasted out before finally blowing up.
“We think the effect was even more important in the larger molecule than in the smaller one, but we don’t know how to quantify it yet,” added lead researcher Artem Rudenko, “we estimate that in total more than 60 electrons were kicked out, but we don’t actually know where it stopped because we could not detect all the fragments that flew off as the molecule fell apart to see how many electrons were missing. This is one of the open questions we need to study.”
While the effect, of course, wasn’t something the researchers were planning on they did, however, learn a very important lesson from it. Using X-rays with ultrahigh intensities is necessary for experiments that try to image individual bacteria, cells and viruses, and it also comes in useful when trying to study the dynamics of complex molecules and the behaviour of matter in extreme conditions.
“For any type of experiment you do that focuses intense X-rays on a sample, you want to understand how it reacts to the X-rays,” says Daniel Rolles, who also headed the study, “this paper shows that we can understand and model the radiation damage in small molecules, so now we can predict what damage we will get in other systems.”
And not a single black hole weapon in sight – yet. Phew.