Strange New Phase of Superionic Ice on Uranus and Neptune Predicted

First Posted: Oct 22, 2015 09:50 AM EDT

Scientists have predicted a cool, new phase of superionic ice, a special form of ice that can be found on Uranus and Neptune. The new findings may tell researchers a bit more about the conditions on these far-off planets.

"Superionic ice is this in-between state of matter that we can't really relate to anything we know of-that's why it' interesting," said Salvatore Torquato, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Unlike Earth, which has two magnetic poles, ice giants can have many local magnetic poles, which leading theories suggest may be due to superionic ice and ionic water in the mantle of these planets. In ionic water, both oxygen and hydrogen ions show liquid-like behavior. Scientists have proposed that heat emanating outward from the planet's core may pass through an inner layer of superionic ice, and through convection, create vortices on the outer layer of ionic water that give rise to local magnetic fields.

In this latest study, the researchers used theoretical simulations to model states of superionic ice that would be difficult to study experimentally. They simulated pressures that were beyond the highest possible pressures attainable in the laboratory with instruments called diamond anvil cells. In the end, they found unusual behavior at the transition where the low temperature crystal, in which both oxygen and hydrogen ions are locked together, transforms into superionic ice. In the ice, the conductivity changed abruptly with temperature across the crystal to close-packed superionic transition and continuously at the crystal to P21/c-SI transition.

These findings reveal a bit more about superionic ice. In fact, the unique properties could be used as signatures to see whether or not superionic ice is present.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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