Mar. 1, 1999 CLEMSON -- Astrophysicists at Clemson University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Harvard University discovered a new chemical sequence during research into how large carbon molecules might form in exploding stars known as supernovae.
The finding is casting doubt on the long-held chemical equilibrium theory and clearing the way for a new field -- kinetic chemistry.
"We believe we have uncovered new truths of chemistry," said Clemson's Donald Clayton, an internationally known theoretical astrophysicist. "Some controversial aspects of supernovae, including information about their core or the amount of radioactivity they generate, can be better evaluated with this kinetic chemical theory." The research team included Clayton, ORNL's Weihong Liu and Harvard's Alexander Dalgarno.
Their work, to be published in the Feb. 26 issue of Science, has far-reaching implications for physics, chemistry, astronomy, meteoritic and planetary sciences. Science is the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Scientists had previously believed it impossible to convert cosmic carbon from a hot gas into a solid if there was more oxygen than carbon present. Conventional theory held that any free carbon atoms in the supernova gas should have reacted with the more abundant oxygen atoms to form carbon monoxide.
But the researchers discovered that supernova radioactivity breaks the strong chemical bond that holds carbon and oxygen together. Energetic electrons and ions allow carbon atoms to escape the pairing mechanism, leaving plenty of atomic carbon that can condense into solid particles and eventually be ejected from the supernova.
The breakthrough that led to the research are tiny grains of "star dust" found inside meteorites that fell to earth about a million years ago.
"These supernova graphite particles are the oldest material fossils that humankind can study, older than our solar system, at least twice as old as the oldest rocks on Earth and also twice as old as the earliest biological fossil algae found on Earth," said Clayton, who first predicted the clues that would identify the starry fossils.
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