back to article Boffins with frickin' laser beams chase universe's mysterious trihydrogen

Scientists are getting closer to piecing together the chemical reactions that form trihydrogen, one of the most abundant yet mysterious ions floating around in space. Trihydrogen, H3+, is an important molecule. It is believed that the tiny ion kickstarted a whole chain of reactions that led to the birth of the first stars in …

  1. Griffo

    Science or Mythbusters?

    I thought it was only TV celebs who got paid to blow things up. I mean, firing a big freaking laser at a pool of hydrocarbons. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Science or Mythbusters?

      Lots of roaming charges?

      :)

      1. entropyk48

        Re: Science or Mythbusters?

        Oooh..I was going to say "a lot of charged roamers", but then I saw what you did there. O.o

    2. Schultz

      what could possibly go wrong?

      Not very much, 10**13 W/cm**2 is fairly standard in trafast laser physics and can be created with table-tennis lasers in thousands of labs worldwide. The interesting physics start somewhere in the 10**20 W/cm**2 regime, but that takes a seriously large laser.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: what could possibly go wrong?

        You learn something new every day here.

        I never knew table tennis used lasers..

        :)

  2. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Trying to re-create the stuff that caused the Universe to be made? Does someone have access to an emergency STOP button?

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Don't panic! The first stars, not the whole universe.

  3. Chris Miller

    H2 + H2+ → H3+ + e

    doesn't balance either for hydrogen or charge

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      It also doesn't match the description "a hydrogen atom and a positive hydrogen ion combine to recreate trihydrogen and an electron," which itself doesn't make sense.

      But I guess the number of electrons balances, at least...

      1. Simon Watson

        Even the charges don't balance. It's positive on the left (1 plus) and neutral on the right (1 plus and 1 minus).

    2. JimC Silver badge

      The original paper includes "Formed via an efficient ion-neutral bi-molecular reaction, H2+ + H2 → H3+ + H, trihydrogen cations can be commonly found in hydrogen plasmas." but the paper is actually about working with methyl based hydrocarbon molecules.

    3. ibmalone Silver badge

      It balances fine for charge, but does give you the problem of where to find a neutral electron.

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

        "... but does give you the problem of where to find a neutral electron."

        Switzerland?

    4. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Chris Miller

      Thanks - that was a mistake our end and it's been fixed. Can you please email corrections@theregister.co.uk if you spot anything wrong so we can fix it right away. We don't have time to read every comment, sadly; we get thousands of posts a month.

      C.

    5. Swarthy Silver badge

      Hmmm...

      I would have thought that the formation went H2 + H+ -> H3+

      Basically, you take H2, slam a loose proton (positive hydrogen ion) into it, and you've got your H3+, no need for emitted electrons.

  4. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Two questions

    The energy from the first laser pulse delivers a whopping 1013 watts/cm2 in 35 millionths of a billionth of a second,

    1) does it scale up to deliver a pulse that lasts a couple of seconds - then it would be really useful

    2) Is it small enough to mount on a frikkin' shark?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Two questions

      1- no

      2- maybe

      Doing the maths it might be almost as powerful as the laser pointer on my Keychain but more likely very much less.

      We have watts but what is the actual energy delivered over how small an area?

  5. Steve K Silver badge

    Trihydrogen...?

    I am awaiting the announcement of dilithium - in crystalline form - any day now!

    1. Roj Blake Silver badge

      Re: Trihydrogen...?

      IIRC dilithium's HOMO (highest occupied molecular orbital, no sniggering at the back) would be anti-bonding, meaning the molecule would fall apart before it's been formed

      1. Long John Brass Silver badge

        Re: Trihydrogen...?

        So the warp reactor has to squish it back together?

    2. Scroticus Canis Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: dilithium - in crystalline form

      Take a carbon atom and cut it exactly in two with Occam's razor - voilà dilithium! Now the crystalline bit is more difficult ....

  6. ocratato

    Hydrocarbons and First Stars

    I thought that the first stars were born from hydrogen and helium, and until those stars exploded there wasn't much of anything else - so why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

    1. JimC Silver badge

      Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

      Because we can?

      from the linked paper again,

      "The study of laser-matter interactions using intense laser fields has been an active area of research since the emergence of femtosecond lasers and has led to the discovery of several interesting phenomena"

      It goes on to say that early research has concentrated on atoms, but is moving on to the much more complicated things involved in molecules, and one presumes methane based molecules are relatively simple and well understood. The impression I get from the paper is not that this is a radical new development, but simply another step on a path that's already identified.

      After all isn't the reason for and interest in doing pure research into weird stuff very much that you don't know where it will end up?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

        isn't the reason for and interest in doing pure research into weird stuff very much that you don't know where it will end up?

        OK, granted, but I can't help but think that if these people ever found a giant plughole in the Universe, there would be at least one of them who would be prepared to pull the plug, just to see what would happen :).

        1. lglethal Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

          You mean you wouldnt?!?!?

          1. thosrtanner

            Re: Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

            You'd never get a job draining the Chesterfield Canal then

        2. Meph
          Pint

          Re: Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

          "there would be at least one of them who would"

          This may well be some inescapable proof that at some level, all humans are fundamentally the same. The geek equivalent of "hold my beer" if you will.

          I doubt you'll ever find a career information sheet on science that would talk about "scientists standing on the backs of smoking corpses who did something ill advised and it went wrong". It might not send quite the right message to impressionable young minds.

          1. Long John Brass Silver badge
            Flame

            Re: Re why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons ?

            I doubt you'll ever find a career information sheet on science that would talk about "scientists standing on the backs of smoking corpses who did something ill advised and it went wrong". It might not send quite the right message to impressionable young minds.

            au contraire: I rather suspect that things go boom would a massive draw-card for most young budding scientists and engineers.

            To stop things from going ka-boom you need to know WHY things go ka-boom, this requires many and varied experiments on things going ka-boom!

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Hydrocarbons and First Stars

      "why the interest in making H3 from hydrocarbons"

      I'm thinking a couple of things at the moment:

      a) more efficient way of storing hydrogen for fuel cells and/or burning in an engine

      b) possible use as fusion fuel (since it loves being an ion, and has 3 hydrogen atoms in it, you could accelerate it and magnetically confine it, for example, in a possible reactor design that had fuel going in on one side, helium going out on the other)

      in EITHER case, being able to make it cheaply has some immediate benefits.

  7. Ian K
    Headmaster

    Power, not Energy

    "The energy from the first laser pulse delivers a whopping 10^13 watts/cm2 in 35 millionths of a billionth of a second"

    A watt's already a measure of energy applied in a period of time, so I'm pretty sure that should be "10^13 watts/cm2 for 35 millionths of a billionth of a second".

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

    This thing really wants to react.

    So how come there's so much of it floating around?

    Now it turns out that there are at least 2 pathways to produce it, one of which could occur not just in a near perfect vacuum but in denser media. Don't think lasers, think very close to a star.

    The payoff is when this mechanism is used to update early universe formation models to show what this does to the levels of H3+.

    1. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

      Don't shoot me down, but could this account for any of the missing matter discrepancy - i.e. we have assumed molecular H2 floating around but it is actually H3 so is ~50% more mass per Hydrogen molecule?

      Or am I talking cr@p?

      1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

        Re: The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

        @John Smith 19

        am I talking cr@p?

        Beats me! But even if you are talking poo you could probably still make a fortune speculating on the chat show circuit. No actual knowledge required.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        " i.e. we have assumed molecular H2 floating around but it is actually H3 "

        Don't know.

        Logically the "overall mass number" field in such models comes from the proportions of different types in the model, so it should be derived and track the species automatically.

        But IRL it could be a parameter that can be twiddled directly. All it would take is someone forgetting to twiddle it in time with the proportions and hey presto, instant "missing matter" mystery.

        Only someone who writes, or runs, these sims would be able to say for sure.

      3. MJB7 Bronze badge

        Re: Missing matter

        No, I'm afraid not. If all the missing matter mass is the form of baryons (protons and neutrons) there would have been rather more fusion going on just after the big bang. The result would have been rather more Helium and Lithium in the universe.

        I remember a talk given by Professor Sir Herman Bondi in the 80's where he was asked about the missing mass problem (actually, "missing light"). His preferred solution was "bricks". Dust (aka "soot") is too visible in long wavelengths; enough Jupiter sized-objects would show up at other wavelengths. Things the size of a brick (about 1kg) would solve the problem nicely.

        ... but we now either need something *really* exotic, or our fundamental theories are wrong. I keep hoping we can get rid of "Dark Energy" and replace it with a new theory of gravitation.

        1. 2+2=5 Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Missing matter

          > I keep hoping we can get rid of "Dark Energy" and replace it with a new theory of gravitation.

          Yep, and I name that new theory "Dark Gravitation".

          Fame is now mine - just need someone else to work out the small details. I thank-you.

      4. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

        @Steve K

        Don't shoot me down, but could this account for any of the missing matter discrepancy - i.e. we have assumed molecular H2 floating around but it is actually H3 so is ~50% more mass per Hydrogen molecule?

        No, this doesn't change the amount of hydrogen, just the proportion of different forms.

        For example (made up numbers):

        they might estimate 1000 hydrogen atoms per m3, made up of

        • 100 'free floating' (H) atoms and
        • 450 paired H2 molecules.

        Changing that to

        • 90 free floating H
        • + 20H3
        • + 425H2

        still = 1000 hydrogen atoms (i.e. protons) m3.

        Also note, that dark:baronic matter ratio is ~ 6:1, therefore even if H3 was something unaccounted for (which it isn't since it is still baryonic matter, 3 protons) then more than just a little bit extra would be needed to account for that discrepancy.

        1. Steve K Silver badge

          Re: The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

          Understood - thanks

    2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: The point is H3+ is really unstable in anything like a normal environment.

      The environment H3+ inhabits is far more normal for the universe than the one we inhabit.

  9. Mpeler
    Coat

    When all else fails, Trihydrogen...

    A Trihydrogen atom walks into a bar, orders a drink and says to the bartender,

    "I seem to have lost an electron"

    Bartender asks, "are you sure?"

    H³ replies, "I'm positive"...

  10. caffeine addict Silver badge

    In every branch of science there's a point where sane people throw their hands up and shout "fck it, it's magic".

    Roaming chemistry is well beyond that point for me...

  11. JCitizen
    Coat

    Hmmm!!

    Since there are no frickin' laser beams in space, the first substitute that comes along, in my mind, is gamma ray bursts! I probably should get my coat!

  12. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    What happens to the single electron(s)?

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Joke

      "What happens to the single electron(s)?"

      after dancing with a number of other ions, it leaves the bar, having not been able to 'react' with anything all night, despite the purchasing of adult beverages and classic lines, and falls asleep in his own bed, alone.

      And the H3 it was divorced from gets the house, kids, investments, etc. after the lawyer takes him to the cleaners. For being an electron.

      (It's a tragic story)

  13. earl grey Silver badge
    Pint

    "elucidated in 1925"

    That impressed the hella out of me. Even though they're probably no longer around; drinks to those 1925 boffins.

  14. Conundrum1885

    Ball lightning?

    Just a thought, H3 might actually be the missing link here.

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