RECENTLY AT THE Laboratory for Laser Energetics in Brighton, New York, one of the world’s most powerful lasers blasted a droplet of water, creating a shock wave that raised the water’s pressure to millions of atmospheres and its temperature to thousands of degrees. X-rays that beamed through the droplet in the same fraction of a second offered humanity’s first glimpse of water under those extreme conditions.


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Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

The x-rays revealed that the water inside the shock wave didn’t become a superheated liquid or gas. Paradoxically—but just as physicists squinting at screens in an adjacent room had expected—the atoms froze solid, forming crystalline ice.

“You hear the shot,” said Marius Millot of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and “right away you see that something interesting was happening.” Millot co-led the experiment with Federica Coppari, also of Lawrence Livermore.

The findings, published this week inNature, confirm the existence of “superionic ice,” a new phase of water with bizarre properties. Unlike the familiar ice found in your freezer or at the north pole, superionic ice is black and hot. A cube of it would weigh four times as much as a normal one. It was first theoretically predicted more than 30 years ago, and although it has never been seen until now, scientists think it might be among the most abundant forms of water in the universe.

Across the solar system, at least, more water probably exists as superionic ice—filling the interiors of Uranus and Neptune—than in any other phase, including the liquid form sloshing in oceans on Earth, Europa and Enceladus. The discovery of superionic ice potentially solves decades-old puzzles about the composition of these “ice giant” worlds.

Including the hexagonal arrangement of water molecules found in common ice, known as “ice Ih,” scientists had already discovered a bewildering 18 architectures of ice crystal. After ice I, which comes in two forms, Ih and Ic, the rest are numbered II through XVII in order of their discovery. (Yes, there is an ice IX, but it exists only under contrived conditions, unlike the fictional doomsday substance in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.)

Superionic ice can now claim the mantle of ice XVIII. It’s a new crystal but with a twist. All the previously known water ices are made of intact water molecules, each with one oxygen atom linked to two hydrogen atoms. But superionic ice, the new measurements confirm, isn’t like that. It exists in a sort of surrealist limbo, part solid, part liquid. Individual water molecules break apart. The oxygen atoms form a cubic lattice, but the hydrogen atoms spill free, flowing like a liquid through the rigid cage of oxygens.

A time-integrated photograph of the x-ray diffraction experiment at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Giant lasers focus on a water sample to compress it into the superionic phase. Additional laser beams generate an x-ray flash off an iron foil, allowing the researchers to take a snapshot of the compressed water layer.

Experts say the discovery of superionic ice vindicates computer predictions, which could help material physicists craft future substances with bespoke properties. And finding the ice required ultrafast measurements and fine control of temperature and pressure, advancing experimental techniques. “All of this would not have been possible, say, five years ago,” said Christoph Salzmann at University College London, who discovered ices XIII, XIV and XV. “It will have a huge impact, for sure.”

Depending on whom you ask, superionic ice is either another addition to water’s already cluttered array of avatars or something even stranger. Because its water molecules break apart, said physicist Livia Bove of France’s National Center for Scientific Research and Pierre and Marie Curie University, it’s not quite a new phase of water. “It’s really a new state of matter,” she said, “which is rather spectacular.”

Puzzles Put on Ice

Physicists have been after superionic ice for years—ever since a primitive computer simulation led by Pierfranco Demontis in 1988 predicted water would take on this strange, almost metal-like form if you pushed it beyond the map of known ice phases.

Under extreme pressure and heat, the simulations suggested, water molecules break. With the oxygen atoms locked in a cubic lattice, “the hydrogens now start to jump from one position in the crystal to another, and jump again, and jump again,” Millot said. The jumps between lattice sites are so fast that the hydrogen atoms—which are ionized, making them essentially positively charged protons—appear to move like a liquid…Read More at