An X-ray view of carbon

New measurement method promises spectacular insights into the interior of planets

At the heart of planets, extreme states are to be found: temperatures of thousands of degrees, pressures a million times greater than atmospheric pressure. They can therefore only be explored directly to a limited extent – which is why the expert community is trying to use sophisticated experiments to recreate equivalent extreme conditions. An international research team including the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) has adapted an established measurement method to these extreme conditions and tested it successfully: Using the light flashes of the world’s strongest X-ray laser the team managed to take a closer look at the important element, carbon, along with its chemical properties. As reported in the journal Physics of Plasmas (DOI: 10.1063/5.0048150), the method now has the potential to deliver new insights into the interior of planets both within and outside of our solar system.

The heat is unimaginable, the pressure huge: The conditions in the interior of Jupiter or Saturn ensure that the matter found there exhibits an unusual state: It is as dense as a metal but, at the same time, electrically charged like a plasma. “We refer to this state as warm dense matter,” explains Dominik Kraus, physicist at HZDR and professor at the University of Rostock. “It is a transitional state between solid state and plasma that is found in the interior of planets, although it can occur briefly on Earth, too, for example during meteor impacts.” Examining this state of matter in any detail in the lab is a complicated process involving, for example, firing strong laser flashes at a sample, and, for the blink of an eye, heating and condensing it.

Read more on the HZDR website

Image: High-resolution spectroscopy will enable unique insights into chemistry happening deep inside planets

Credit: HZDR / U. Lehmann

Scientists capture a ‘quantum tug’ between neighbouring water molecules

The work sheds light on the web of hydrogen bonds that gives water its strange properties, which play a vital role in many chemical and biological processes.

Water is the most abundant yet least understood liquid in nature. It exhibits many strange behaviors that scientists still struggle to explain. While most liquids get denser as they get colder, water is most dense at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, just above its freezing point. This is why ice floats to the top of a drinking glass and lakes freeze from the surface down, allowing marine life to survive cold winters. Water also has an unusually high surface tension, allowing insects to walk on its surface, and a large capacity to store heat, keeping ocean temperatures stable.

Now, a team that includes researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University and Stockholm University in Sweden have made the first direct observation of how hydrogen atoms in water molecules tug and push neighbouring water molecules when they are excited with laser light. Their results, published in Nature today, reveal effects that could underpin key aspects of the microscopic origin of water’s strange properties and could lead to a better understanding of how water helps proteins function in living organisms.

Read more on the LCLS website

Image: For these experiments, the research team (left to right: Xiaozhe Shen, Pedro Nunes, Jie Yang and Xijie Wang) used SLAC’s MeV-UED, a high-speed “electron camera” that uses a powerful beam of electrons to detect subtle molecular movements in samples.

Credit: Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

First detailed look at how charge transfer distorts a molecule’s structure

Charge transfer is highly important in most areas of chemistry, including photosynthesis and other processes in living things. A SLAC X-ray laser study reveals how it works in a molecule whose lopsided response to light has puzzled scientists for nearly a decade.

When light hits certain molecules, it dislodges electrons that then move from one location to another, creating areas of positive and negative charge. This “charge transfer” is highly important in many areas of chemistry, in biological processes like photosynthesis and in technologies like semiconductor devices and solar cells.

Even though theories have been developed to explain and predict how charge transfer works, they have been validated only indirectly because of the difficulty of observing how a molecule’s structure responds to charge movements with the required atomic resolution and on the required ultrafast time scales.

In a new study, a research team led by scientists from Brown University, the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Edinburgh used SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser to make the first direct observations of molecular structures associated with charge transfer in gas molecules hit with light.

Molecules of this gas, called N,N′-dimethylpiperazine or DMP, are normally symmetric, with a nitrogen atom at each end. Light can knock an electron out of a nitrogen atom, leaving a positively charged ion known as a “charge center.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: In experiments with SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser, scientists knocked electrons out of a molecule known as DMP to make the first detailed observations of how a process called charge transfer affects its molecular structure. Left: DMP is normally symmetric. Center: When a pulse of light knocks an electron out of one of its nitrogen atoms (blue spheres), it leaves a positively charged ion known as a charge center, shown in pink. This creates a charge imbalance that shifts the positions of atoms. Right: But within three trillionths of a second, the charge redistributes itself between the two nitrogen atoms until it evens out and the molecule becomes symmetric again.

Credit: Greg Stewart/ SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Beaming in on Coronavirus details

User operation resumed at European XFEL end of March, and the first experiments to receive beamtime are those being carried out at the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules & Serial Femtosecond Crystallography (SPB/SFX) instrument. They will focus on getting deeper insights into the Coronavirus, and, if successful, can lead to a better understanding of the structure of key Coronavirus proteins. New information about the shapes of these proteins, which the virus needs to copy itself, will aid scientists in their quest to find ways to fight COVID.

“Three user collaborations have proposed experiments that will use two distinct approaches to study the Coronavirus. Two collaborations lead by scientists from DESY and Diamond Light Source will look at the structure and binding of ligands to the proteases of the Coronavirus,” says Adrian Mancuso, leading scientist at the SPB/SFX instrument. A ligand is a molecule that binds another specific molecule or atom. Some ligands deliver a signal during the binding process and can be thought of as signaling molecules, which interact with proteins in target cells called receptors. At the European XFEL, scientists can potentially observe the process of these ligands attaching to proteins at atomic resolution, however, first an ordered crystal of the relevant protein is required. “XFELs are uniquely positioned to watch how irreversible processes in proteins—such as binding of potential drug candidates—happen,” explains Mancuso.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: A shot from the control hutch showing one of the first COVID-related beamtimes at SPB/SFX

Credit: European XFEL