To grow, stars and planets need space dust . . . and formaldehyde?

June 30, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Scientists at Ohio State University have found that a formaldehyde-based chemical is 100 times more common in parts of our galaxy than can be explained.

The finding could change ideas about how organic molecules form in the universe, and how those molecules' critical interaction with dust causes stars and planets to form.

The scientists compared the results of experiments from an international team of chemists to telescopic measurements of the amount of methyl formate -- a product of alcohol and formaldehyde -- in the swirling dust clouds that dot our Milky Way galaxy. On Earth, methyl formate is commonly used as an insecticide.

Based on telescope data, if the gaseous methyl formate condensed into liquid form, a typical dust cloud would contain a thousand trillion trillion gallons of the chemical.

Interstellar dust clouds contain the chemical seeds of new stars and planetary systems, explained Eric Herbst, Distinguished Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Ohio State. Most people are probably familiar with the dust cloud known as the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion.

While scientists have long known that hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe, just 10 years ago Herbst -- a professor of physics, chemistry, and astronomy -- and his colleagues discovered that there were also large quantities of alcohol in dust clouds in space. The presence of methyl formate suggests that other molecules may play a more prominent role in star and planet formation than scientists ever suspected.

"Even using our best models of interstellar chemistry, we still don't fully understand how these molecules could have formed," Herbst said. "Clearly, something else is going on."

Herbst reported the new results June 23 at the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy in Columbus.

Three groups of chemists from the United States, Canada, and Norway had previously conducted laboratory experiments to determine how alcohol and other molecules produce methyl formate. Herbst and Ohio State postdoctoral researcher Helen Roberts used that data to construct a new model of how such reactions happen in space, and then used the model to predict how much methyl formate would be found in the typical interstellar dust cloud.

Next, the Ohio State scientists consulted the radio spectrum of the dust clouds, which gives them the unique chemical signatures of the different molecules floating inside.

The spectra showed that the average ratio of hydrogen molecules to molecules of methyl formate was a billion to one. But the model that Herbst and Roberts derived had predicted only a fraction of that amount.

"We calculated the ratio to be 100 billion to one, so the model must be deficient," Herbst said.

Scientists will have to refine the models before they can truly know how stars and planets form, he said.

According to accepted theory, gas molecules floating in these clouds must join and nuclear reactions must begin before stars can form. Dust particles are key to the process because they provide a surface for reactions to take place.

Among their future goals, Herbst, Roberts, and their colleagues want to determine exactly what space dust is made of and what the surface texture is like, since both would affect chemical reactions -- a task that amounts to studying individual dust grains thousands of light years away.

Modeling such large, complex systems requires a great deal of computing power, and measuring the actual amounts of chemicals in these faraway clouds is difficult. Herbst said that supercomputers and telescopes are just beginning to advance to the point where such things are possible. In the future, he would like to form a consortium of researchers in molecular astronomy to pool ideas and resources.
-end-
This work was funded by the National Science Foundation. Contact: Eric Herbst, 614-292-6951; Herbst.6@osu.edu..
Written by Pam Frost Gorder, 614-292-9475; Gorder.1@osu.edu.

Ohio State University

Related Alcohol Articles from Brightsurf:

Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
One in four adults reported a change in alcohol use almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued: 14% reported drinking more alcohol and reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who did not drink and those whose use stayed the same.

Changes in hospitalizations for alcohol use disorder in US
Changes over nearly two decades in the rate of hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths from alcohol use disorder in the US were examined in this study.

Associations of alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced passing out with risk of dementia
The risk of future dementia associated with overall alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced loss of consciousness in a population of current drinkers was examined in this observational study with more than 131,000 adults.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

Does estrogen influence alcohol use disorder?
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that high estrogen levels may make alcohol more rewarding to female mice.

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.

Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.

Read More: Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.