In Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction classic Cat’s Cradle, the protagonist learns of a bizarre form of water known as ‘ice-nine’ which is solid at room temperature. Any liquid water that comes into contact with ice-nine freezes up immediately. Eventually, all of the world’s oceans freeze over.
That is science fiction, but researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have created a bizarre form of ‘superionic ice’ they’ve dubbed ice XVIII and its properties are as wild than those dreamed up in a sci-fi novel.
It doesn’t freeze up the entire world if it comes into contact with liquid water like Vonnegut’s ice-nine but it is an extreme form of ice. It only exists at incredibly hot temperatures (around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and extreme pressures 4 million times greater than Earth’s atmospheric pressure.
The findings, published in prestigious journal Nature on May 8, detail the creation of ice XVIII in greater detail and show that water — H2O — is a really weird, incredible molecule. The LLNL team used half a dozen giant laser beams to create shockwaves of increasing intensity that could flash-freeze tiny amounts of water.
‘We designed the experiments to compress the water so that it would freeze into solid ice, but it was not certain that the ice crystals would actually form and grow in the few billionths of a second that we can hold the pressure-temperature conditions,’ said Marius Millot, co-lead author on the paper, in a press release.
Ice can exist in a number of different forms because the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make it up can arrange itself into all sorts of different configurations. The team had previously demonstrated this form of ice can exist — via computer simulation — but this is the first time it has actually been created and imaged on Earth.
‘Computer simulations have proposed a number of different possible crystalline structures for superionic ice. Our study provides a critical test to numerical methods.’
It’s believed that this form of frozen water may exist throughout the cosmos, locked within icy planets such as Neptune and Uranus. That could make this extremely bizarre form of ice the most abundant in the universe, provided the hypothesis holds up for similar icy planets across the cosmos.