Black holes are fascinating! So much has been written and speculated about them and yet, we know so little. That makes this mysterious phenomena all the more captivating. However, what if I told you that we could create a black hole? Or something that can get as close to being a real black hole yet. Yes, technology has paved way for the creation of one of the most bizarre elements of the universe, right here on planet Earth! The world’s most powerful X-ray laser has created a molecular “black hole.”
A black hole is generally thought to be a supermassive celestial object that engulfs everything within its event horizon. However, laser made black holes are created when X-ray energy is aimed at a molecule resulting in many of its electrons being stripped away, creating a void that then sucks in all the electrons from nearby atoms — in black-hole fashion.
“It basically sucked all the electrons away from the surrounding environment,” said study co-author Sebastien Boutet, a physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. “It’s an analogy to how a black hole gravitationally pulls everything in.” The molecular black hole effect happens due to the most powerful X-ray beam of its kind. Just how powerful you ask? It would be the equivalent to focusing all the sun’s light onto a spot the size of a thumbnail.
The experiments relied on the SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray free-electron laser, which generates extremely high-energy laser pulses known as hard X-rays. Boutet and colleagues then used a series of mirrors to focus that X-ray energy onto a spot about 100 nanometers in diameter. (A human hair is about 70,000 nanometers wide, where 1 nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.)
These focused laser pulses then illuminated isolated xenon atoms and molecules of iodomethane (CH3I) and iodobenzene (C6H5I). The intense energy was tuned so that the X-rays would strip electrons first from the innermost energy shells of the iodine atoms. (Electrons whirl around the nucleus of an atom in shells, or orbitals, with different energy levels.) At first, everything acted as predicted: The outer electrons moved from the outermost electron orbitals into the innermost shells, where they would also be ejected by the X-ray pulses.
However, X-ray pulses didn’t just deplete the outer shell of iodine’s electrons: The iodine atom, which normally contains 53 electrons, continued to suck in electrons from neighboring carbon and hydrogen atoms in the molecule — after which they were violently ejected as well. Curiously, the iodine molecules lost 54 electrons — more than the atoms initially started with. The entire process occurred in a staggering 30 femtoseconds, or one quadrillionth of a second! After the pronounced spectacle, the molecule exploded.
However, reality isn’t always as fancy as theory. “Even for something relatively simple, a six-atom system, it ends up being pretty challenging to predict how the damage will occur,” Boutet said. However, if this discovery makes its way forward, the study could really pave way for an array of useful implementations.
The findings could help scientists better model the radiation damage incurred by the powerful laser pulses, which are frequently used to visualize intricate organic molecules, such as viruses, enzymes and bacteria. Black holes are intriguing phenomena but have an element of darkness and uncertainty associated with them. “There’s some celestial events that will create these intense fields, like supernovas,” Boutet said. “It does not happen naturally in any place that we humans happen to be.”