Nitrogen-fixing aliens

Scientists hope that Titan, a moon of Saturn, with its nitrogen-rich atmosphere, could act as a model system for terrestrial chemistry before life began on our planet. Now, another step towards that goal has emerged as researchers at the University of Arizona have incorporated atmospheric nitrogen into organic macromolecules under conditions resembling those on Titan.

“Titan is so interesting because its nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and organic chemistry might give us a clue to the origin of life on our Earth,” explains Hiroshi Imanaka, who is an assistant research scientist in the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “Nitrogen is an essential element of life.” Titan looks orange through a telescope because its atmosphere is a rich smog of organic molecules. Particles in the smog could settle on the surface and be exposed to conditions that might eventually create life, said Imanaka.

Saturn's A and F rings, the small moon Epimetheus and the smog-enshrouded Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
Saturn's A and F rings, the small moon Epimetheus and the smog-enshrouded Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Of course, nitrogen alone is not enough, nitrogen molecules must be converted to a chemically active form that can drive the necessary biochemical reactions that underpin biological systems.

Imanaka and Mark Smith converted a nitrogen-methane gas mixture similar to Titan’s atmosphere into a collection of nitrogen-containing organic molecules by irradiating the gas with high-energy ultraviolet light. The laboratory set-up was designed to mimic how solar radiation affects Titan’s atmosphere.

Most of the nitrogen simply formed solid compounds directly, rather than gaseous ones, explains Smith, whereas previous theories suggested that nitrogen would move from gaseous compounds to solid ones in stepwise process. But, those settling particles may not contain nitrogen at all. If some of the particles are the same nitrogen-containing organic molecules created by the UA team in the laboratory then it would suggest that conditions conducive to life might just exist on Titan, Smith says.

These and other laboratory observations help scientists planning future space missions to decide on what to look for on other worlds that might hint at life and what instruments should be developed to help in the search.


Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2010, online
Mark A. Smith homepage
UA lunar and planetary laboratory

Flat-packed particles

Graphene, a Manchester University discovery, is a material comprising sheets of carbon just one atom thick; graphene is like a single layer of graphite. However, it was the discovery that it has some peculiar electronic properties because of the existence of massless quasiparticles that has led to an explosion of interest in this material. Some researchers suggest that ultimately it will become the material that gives us a post-silicon world in computing.

Now, US scientists have made the first observation of the energy bands of complex particles within graphene known as plasmarons. This small step is an important one in understanding graphene and using it to develop devices for that future of ultrafast chemical computers.

At Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, an international team led by Aaron Bostwick and Eli Rotenberg have shown that these composite plasmaron particles are vital in generating graphene’s unique properties. “Graphene’s true electronic structure can’t be understood without understanding the many complex interactions of electrons with other particles.”

The electric charge carriers in graphene are negative electrons and positive holes, which in turn are affected by plasmons, oscillations in the density of the material that travel like sound waves through a sea of electrons. A plasmaron is “simply” a charge carrier coupled to a plasmon. “Although plasmarons were proposed theoretically in the late 1960s, and indirect evidence for them has been found, our work is the first observation of their distinct energy bands in graphene, or indeed in any material,” Rotenberg says. The team reported details of their findings in the journal Science in May.

Top: graphene structure. Bottom: a theoretical model of plasmaron interactions in graphene, sheets of carbon one atom thick.

The relationships between charge carriers, plasmons, and plasmarons will be important in the development of plasmonics, the architecture analogous to electronics in conventional silicon semiconductor circuitry. An important aspect of studying these relationships is to produce flat graphene sheets; graphene is usually rumpled like unmade bed linen. “One of the best ways to grow a flat sheet of graphene is by heating a crystal of silicon carbide,” Rotenberg explains, “and it happens that our German colleagues Thomas Seyller from the University of Erlangen and Karsten Horn from the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin are experts at working with silicon carbide. As the silicon recedes from the surface it leaves a single carbon layer.”

With flat graphene sheets in hand, the team used a beam of low-energy, or soft, X-rays to analyse the materials. The resulting data provided them with an image of the electronic bands created by the electrons themselves. Even from the initial experiments, the team suspected graphene’s behaviour was more complicated than simple theory would suggest and seemed to hint at the existence of bare electrons. Since bare electrons cannot exist, the researchers postulated the fuzziness in their image was due to charge carriers emitting plasmons. Additional experiments with graphene sheets isolated from their support material revealed that electrons detached by the X-rays can leave behind either an ordinary hole or a hole bound to a plasmon – a plasmaron, explains Rotenberg.

“By their nature, plasmons couple strongly to photons, which promises new ways for manipulating light in nanostructures, giving rise to the field of plasmonics,” Rotenberg says. “Now we know that plasmons couple strongly to the charge carriers in graphene, which suggests that graphene may have an important role to play in the merging fields of electronics, photonics, and plasmonics on the nanoscale.”


Science, 2010, 328, 999-1002
Eli Rotenberg homepage

Low-temperature fraud detection

A low-temperature plasma probe can identify art fraud without damaging the artwork, which is important should the work turn out to be genuine.

Many priceless works of art are very delicate, so restoration, conservation, dating and authentication require sophisticated technical methods that avoid interfering with the substance of the work. Now, Sichun Zhang and colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, have developed a new mass spectrometric imaging technique that can characterise paintings and calligraphy by barely scratching the surface.

In conventional mass spectrometry a substance is vaporised and then ionised to produce electrically charged particles of different sizes depending on the chemical structure of the compound. The ions are accelerated by an electric field and spread out by a magnetic field to produce a spectrum as the magnetic field makes particles of different mass to charge ratio deviate more or less than each other. Imaging mass spectrometry involves scanning a surface and releasing ions directly from the surface using special ionization methods. Unfortunately, these techniques require vacuum conditions, which limits sample size so that previously a tiny cutting would need to be removed from an artwork for analysis.

Probing reveals hidden information about art work without causing damage

The Chinese team has developed a low-temperature plasma probe, which consists of a fused capillary and two electrodes made of aluminium foil. High voltage alternating current applied to this probe induces a discharge in the capillary forming a low-temperature plasma; the probe reaches a mere 30 Celsius. However, in this state the helium plasma has energetic and excited enough to eject a few molecules from the surface of a sample and ionize them without measureable damage to a work of art.

The researchers used their approach to test seals, stamped signatures on Chinese paintings and calligraphy. They could reveal variations in ink composition easily, making it possible to differentiate between authentic and forged seals.


Angew Chem Int Edn, 2010, online
Professor Dr. Xinrong ZHANG