Evolution of Ices: From Molecular Cloud to Ocean

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: Sch of Engineering and Physical Science


Ices of various forms are found throughout our Milky Way Galaxy, from the large "molecular clouds" in which stars and planets form, in interstellar space, and in our own Solar System, on the surfaces of the Earth, the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, on asteroids, and on comets. It is very likely that water was
delivered to the Earth during its formative years by the impacts of comets and asteroids in the kind of event that exterminated the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. Furthermore, these impacting bodies carry organic material, which may have been crucial to the emergence of life on Earth: comets and asteroids bring life and death! This project will study how cosmic ice evolves, from the environments of embryonic stars, to the ices and even oceans in the Solar System. We will be using laboratory experiments, including the world's most powerful light source, the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, to study how the ices change as they are exposed to simulated cosmic environments such as cosmic radiation and ultraviolet light. This work might give us a glimpse as to how life began on Earth.

Planned Impact

To engage with the global research community, we will disseminate the results of our work by timely publication of data, with interpretation, in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, and by oral presentation at high profile international workshops and conferences. In view of the inter-disciplinary nature of the
project we will be reaching a far wider community than is customary for astronomical work, for example, the oceanographic and chemical physics communities.

We will set up a consortium website, to which the various institutional web sites will be linked; this page will be maintained at Keele. It will be the means by which those seeking to use data acquired in this project will be directed to the VAMDC repository (see Data Management Plan). The availability of data will where appropriate be announced in peer-reviewed papers in which the data are presented.

The participating institutions have strong and active public engagement and widening participation strategies, and this project has ample scope for engaging with these schemes. The early career researchers employed on this project will be given the opportunity to attend (for example) STFC and Royal Society training programmes on public engagement and media communications, and to engage with
nationally and regionally organised activities such as the Institute of Physics' "Physics in the Field" festival. This will contribute to the professional development of the early career researchers, and sits well with the RCUK "Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research".

For this purpose we request £1k per annum per PDRA/PGR researcher to enable them to attend (i) professional development activities and (ii) appropriate events such as sixth form conferences, science festivals etc. These funds will also be used to cover the costs of CRB checking for researchers who will be working with school students and vulnerable adults.

We also request £10k to design and produce suitably tailored, mass- and professionally-pruced full colour leaflets to highlight the project to school students and the general public.

In due course, as the project evolves, we anticipate that there will be scope for explicit funding for outreach and public awareness, and we will approach the STFC for funding at the appropriate time.


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Abdulgalil A (2017) Electron-Promoted Desorption from Water Ice Surfaces: Neutral Gas-Phase Products in ACS Earth and Space Chemistry

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Chen YJ (2017) Wannier-Mott Excitons in Nanoscale Molecular Ices. in Physical review letters

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Collings M (2015) Probing model interstellar grain surfaces with small molecules in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Frankland VL (2015) Laboratory surface astrochemistry experiments. in The Review of scientific instruments

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Lasne J (2015) Spontaneous electric fields in solid carbon monoxide. in Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP

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Lasne J (2015) Spontaneously electrical solids in a new light. in Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP

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Marchione D (2016) Efficient electron-promoted desorption of benzene from water ice surfaces. in Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP

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Marchione D (2016) Non-covalent interaction of benzene with methanol and diethyl ether solid surfaces. in Physical chemistry chemical physics : PCCP

Description As it stands we have made a number of key developments in our programme;

(1) We have demonstrated facile diffusion of water on silica surfaces at 18 K which points to island growth of water ice on cold surfaces in the interstellar medium and potentially segregation of ices into water rich and water poor.
(2) We have confirmed the necessary presence of a hydrogen-bond network to support exciton transport to the ice-vacuum interface following low energy electron irradiation and highly efficient exciton-promoted desorption from water ice surfaces.
(3) We have evidence that supports that idea that the surface (selvedge) and bulk of an icy film behave in different ways in the presence of low energy electrons.
(4) We have demonstrated that we can understand the infrared spectroscopy of carbon monoxide (CO) on a heterogeneous surface in terms of the strengths of the interactions between the CO and the surface
(5) We have shown that spontaneous dipole alignment in solid CO is responsible for maintain the rate of star formation in our Galaxy and that the small polar organic molecule methyl formate exhibits this behavior in the solid state at low temperatures.
(6) We have developed a simple UV-visible spectrometer which extends the capabilities of reflect90-absorption infrared spectroscopy into that spectral window. We are working with colleagues at the University of Sussex to develop this device and data analysis associated with its use.
(7) We have developed more fully TPD inversion methods for extraction of binding energy distributions for adsorbate monolayers on surfaces of relevance in the interstellar medium.
Exploitation Route (1) Our work on exciton promoted physics and chemistry is of considerable potential interest to the radiation physics and chemistry community
(2) Astronomers and astrophysicists will be able to make use of our findings on desorption and spontelectric behavior to more fully understand the physics and chemistry of the star formation process.
(3) There is potential for our observations on spontaneous dipole alignment to impact in molecular electronics.
Sectors Electronics,Other

Description Consortium Renewal Application - Astrochemistry at High Resolution
Amount £0 (GBP)
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 03/2020
Description Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena 
Organisation Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory Jena
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We will investigate the nature of the surfaces of silicate nanoparticle thin-films provided by our collaborators.
Collaborator Contribution This group will prepare silicate nanoparticle thin films by pulsed laser deposition for us to study.
Impact None yet as the collaboration has just begun.
Start Year 2016
Description Department of Chemistry, University of Sussex 
Organisation Case Western Reserve University
Department Department of Chemistry
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are designing and constructing an in vacuum angle-resolved UV-visible spectrometer as part of this project.
Collaborator Contribution The partner has purchased the components required for the in vacuum spectrometer which we are constructing for them.
Impact None at present.
Start Year 2015
Description Department of Physics and Astronomy, Keele University 
Organisation Keele University
Department Physics and Astrophysics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have an application to Diamond for time on the Long Duration Exposure Facility.
Collaborator Contribution We have an application to Diamond for time on the Long Duration Exposure Facility.
Impact None at present.
Start Year 2015