World's Most Powerful Laser Creates a Molecular Black Hole

Jun 01, 2017 11:10 AM EDT

With the ultra-bright pulse of X-ray light, scientists were able to turn an atom in a molecule into an electromagnetic black hole, albeit very briefly.

According to a report from Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), the resulting "black hole" exists for merely a flash. Live Science revealed that the event lasted merely 30 femtoseconds or one quadrillionth of a second. Because the X-rayed atom doesn't draw in matter from its surroundings with gravity and instead electrons with its electrical charge, it explodes nearly instantly.

The team used the free-electron laser Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, targeting iodomethane (CH3I) molecules with ultra-strong X-ray light. The pulses were as intense as 100 quadrillion kilowatts per square centimetre, knocking 54 out of 62 electrons out of the molecule and consequently creating a molecule that has a positive charge 54 times greater than the elementary charge.

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It's believed to be the highest level of ionisation ever achieved with light, according to co-author Robin Santra of DESY. He added that it does not occur simultaneously with the methyl group CH3 being "blind" to the X-rays.

"The X-ray pulse initially strips the iodine atom of five or six of its electrons," Santra explained. "The resulting strong positive charge means that the iodine atom then sucks electrons away from the methyl group, like a sort of atomic black hole."

This force on the electron is even larger than the force around a typical astrophysical black hole with ten times more mass than the sun.

"This is not only the first time that this experiment has been successfully carried out; we even have a numerical description of the process," co-author Sang-Kil Son explained. "The data are highly relevant to studies using free-electron lasers, because they show in detail what happens when radiation damage is produced."

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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