It’s called superionic ice, and until recently it had only been glimpsed for a fleeting moment. In a study published in the journal Nature Physics, researchers managed to create the substance using the same high temperatures and pressures that can be found inside ice giants Uranus and Neptune.
Ordinary ice is made of crystals formed by the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up water. Hydrogen atoms connect oxygen atoms into a solid, latticelike structure.
In superionic ice, the hydrogen atoms float around inside an oxygen lattice instead. This leads to ice that can conduct electricity. The ice is less dense than ordinary ice, and is black in color.
It’s tough to create this odd ice, and earlier, researchers had managed to observe it for just a few billionths of a second. In the new experiment, they managed to observe it for a millionth of a second before it disintegrated. In the experiment, the researchers heated the water to over 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Since they did so under the same types of high pressure that exist inside dense planets, the study produced superionic ice instead of a puff of steam.
Scientists say that a lot of the universe’s water exists in this hot, superionic form, and they’re trying to understand its properties, which include the ability to generate the magnetic fields that protect people and organisms from the sun’s blistering radiation. Since magnetic fields allow planets to sustain life, the hunt for superionic ice could point to other places where life is possible.
The new phase of water joins a long list of recently discovered types of ice. But since the experiments are so fleeting, learning more is a challenge.
“It’s a new state of matter, so it basically acts as a new material,” said Vitali Prakapenka, a University of Chicago research professor and scientist at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory who co-wrote the study, in a news release. “And it may be different from what we thought.”