World’s fastest water heater: 100,000 degrees in tenth of a picosecond

World’s fastest water heater: 100,000 degrees in tenth of a picosecond
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In a study to unravel the mysteries surrounding the most important liquid on Earth, scientists have discovered the world’s fastest water heater. In the experiment, the Swedish researchers used a powerful X-ray laser to heat room temperature water. The numbers are surely mind-boggling.

According to the researchers, the water reached 100,000 degrees in 0.000 000 000 000 075 seconds (less than a millionth of a millionth of a second or less than a tenth of a picosecond). The experiment resulted in an exotic state of water, transitioning it from liquid to plasma, a state of matter where the electrons are separated from the atoms, resulting in an electrically charged gas.

The researchers hoped to learn more about the characteristics of water from this experiment. Carl Caleman, the team lead from Sweden’s Uppsala University, used the X-ray free-electron laser source at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the U.S. for the experiment. In the experiment, the researchers directed intense and ultra-short flashes of the X-rays at a jet of water. The laser that turned out to be the world’s fastest water heater was the Linac Coherent Light Source.

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According to Caleman, the method they used to heat the water is different from what is normally used. “It is not the usual way to boil your water,” said Caleman, adding that when the water is normally heated, the molecules “will just be shaken stronger and stronger.” Heat is basically motion on the molecular level, so the hotter it is, the faster the motion of the molecules.

“Our heating is fundamentally different,” Caleman said. “The energetic X-rays punch electrons out of the water molecules, thereby destroying the balance of electric charges. So, suddenly the atoms feel a strong repulsive force and start to move violently,” said Caleman.

Talking of the plasma state, co-author Olof Jönsson from Uppsala University says that while the water transitions to plasma, the density of the liquid water stays the same because the atoms don’t have enough time to move much.  According to Jönsson, such a state of matter is not found naturally on Earth, rather it shares similar characteristics as “some plasmas in the sun and the gas giant Jupiter, but has a lower density. Meanwhile, it is hotter than Earth’s core.”

Further, Jönsson noted that water is an “odd liquid” and many things on our planet are as they are because of water’s peculiar characteristics. Water shows several deviations, including in its thermal conductivity, density and heat capacity. Jönsson says that these anomalies will be studied in future studies, and the latest results will be of great importance then.

Talking of the use of X-ray lasers in the experiment, Kenneth Beyerlein, co-author of the study, says that X-ray lasers are known to destroy the samples used in tests. Any sample put into the X-ray beam will be “destroyed in the way that we observed,” Beyerlein said. “If you analyse anything that is not a crystal, you have to consider this.”

In the experiment, the researchers noted that the water sample witnessed no structural changes at 25 femtoseconds after the X-ray lasers hit it. The water changed structure only at 75 femtoseconds.

The findings have been reported in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The experiment, which discovered the world’s fastest water heater, could have practical applications in investigating biological and other samples as X-ray lasers are used in studying the atomic structure of tiny samples.

In separate news, a team of scientists has found strong evidence that one of Jupiter’s moons is emitting water into space, but in the form of plumes. The latest discovery could mean that of Jupiter’s moons, Europa could be used by scientists for hunting alien life in the solar system. The findings owe some of its success to the decades-old data from NASA’s Galileo mission, which spent eight years in orbit around Jupiter and passed close to Europa on December 16, 1997.

Europa, due to its potential habitability, has always been the favorite among the scientists when asked to guess about alien life. Europa is the sixth biggest moon in the solar system. It is known to have a tenuous oxygen atmosphere and magnetic field, which are considered important elements for a habitable environment. Its biggest asset, however, is beneath the miles of ice that cover its surface – a massive salt-water ocean.

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