New outreach video

Today we have 2 great audiovisual news: we present a new short video summarizing some of the scientific and technological achievements of our project. The premiere is today at 10:00h in our youtube channel:

And we also release the documentary “Nanocosmos: un viaje a lo pequeño” (subtitles available in Spanish, English and French): 40 minutes to talk about the journey of cosmic dust and the seek of our researchers to go deep into the dust grains formation.

We want to thank all the professionals that made possible those two audiovisuals, Filmociencia and LUZLUX, the institutions that support us, the European Research Council, the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and the funding from Fecyt (Fundación española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología). And, of course, thanks to all the researchers of our participating institutions for their work and their enthusiasm.

We hope those videos will help to understand how astrochemistry and fundamental science improves a better knowledge of the universe and helps Humanity to go beyond the frontiers of the unknown. Because, as Carl Sagan said: “The cosmos is also within us, We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Why do we study chemical equilibrium in red giants?

You may have often read that “we are stardust.” It is a rather accurate expression, especially if we think that most of the elements that make us up (this scarce 5% of the baryonic matter of the universe) emerged from the core of a star and from a whole process of death and destruction. But what do we call stardust?

Nanocosmos has participated in this study, explained in the outreach article “Funambulist stars”, that you can continue reading by clicking here.

Carbon grains around evolved stars

The Nanocosmos team published in October 21, 2019, at Nature Astronomy (available free at Europe PubMed Central), the results of a set of laboratory experiments showing that gas-phase chemistry, under conditions similar to those of a red giant star environment, can produce very efficiently small amorphous carbon grains and carbon chains similar to those found in oil.

Stardust, an ultra-high vacuum machine built in the ERC Nanocosmos project (a Synergy project funded by the European Research Council), was specifically conceived to simulate, with a high level of control, the complex conditions of stardust formation and processing in the environment of evolved stars. In addition, the AROMA setup was built to analyse the molecular content of the samples synthesized by Stardust.

In the words of José Ángel Martín-Gago (Institute of Materials Science of Madrid, ICMM-CSIC, Spain), responsible for the Stardust instrument, “Mimicking the conditions of the envelope of an evolved star, laboratory experiments allow scientists to follow, step by step, the formation process of dust grains, from atoms to simple molecules and their growth to more complex clusters of molecules.”

For José Cernicharo (Institute of Fundamental Physics, IFF-CSIC, Spain), lead co-investigator of the project together with Martín-Gago and Christine Joblin (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, IRAP-CNRS, France), “That process is important because those grains of dust, which emerge from the final stages of the evolution of medium-sized stars like our Sun will provide the fundamental pieces needed for the birth of the planets and the main ingredients for the onset of life once injected into the interstellar medium.”

This is why it is essential to develop experiments combining laboratory astrophysics, surface science and astronomical observations to unveil the chemical routes that operate in the inner layers of the envelope of evolved stars.

The results obtained show the formation of amorphous carbon nanograins and aliphatic carbon clusters with traces of aromatic species and no fullerenes. This shows that the latter species cannot form effectively by gas-phase condensation at these temperatures in the zone of the evolved star where the dust is formed, a region that extends up to a few stellar radii.

Chemical complexity

Carbon dust analogues were produced in Stardust and analysed with several characterization techniques including Scanning Tunneling Microscopy and mass spectrometry with the AROMA setup. To produce them only gas carbon atoms and molecular hydrogen were used in a ratio close to that in the atmospheres of AGB stars.

The results showed two types of products: amorphous carbonaceous nanograins – the most abundant, considered to be the main component of carbonaceous star dust – and aliphatic carbon groups. But almost no aromatic molecules were found in the analysis.

According to Joblin, “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are widespread in massive star-forming regions and in carbon-rich protoplanetary and planetary nebulae. Large carbonaceous molecules like buckminsterfullerene C60 have also been detected in some of these environments. But it seems that they need different conditions to be formed”.

One possible pathway could be through thermal processing of aliphatic material on the surface of dust, which could take place as a result of the significant rise in the temperature of nanograins that occurs in highly UV-irradiated environments. Those results give us new insights into the chemistry of carbonaceous stardust seed formation and foster new observations in order to constrain the physical and chemical conditions in the inner shells of the envelops of evolved stars.

About the ERC

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age to run projects based in Europe. The ERC has three grant schemes for individual principal investigators – Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, and Advanced Grants – and Synergy Grants for small groups of excellent researchers.

To date, the ERC has funded more than 9,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and over 50,000 postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. The ERC strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe.

The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. The ERC current President is Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. The ERC has an annual budget of €2 billion for the year 2019. The overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than €13 billion, as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, for which European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Carlos Moedas is currently responsible.

Rémi Bérard, New Nanocosmos Doctor

On Monday 23rd of September, Rémi Bérard (center of the picture) presented his PhD thesis entitled Formation and growth by plasma of laboratory stardust analogues : investigation of the role of the c/o ratio and metals”, that was carried out at the IRAP in the framework of the Nanocosmos projet under the direction of Kremena Makasheva (LAPLACE, right side of the picture) and Christine Joblin (IRAP, on the left).


Summary :

Dust formation is a fundamental topic in both cold plasma physics and astrophysics. This PhD thesis, carried out at the interface between the two fields, aims to better understand the formation of stardust. The problem is treated experimentally in cold plasmas and discussed in the context of the environment of evolved stars.

We observe the formation of successive generations of dust due to pulsed injection of hexamethyldisiloxane (HMDSO: Si2O(CH3)3) in a capacitively-coupled radiofrequency asymmetric plasma sustained in argon. The used molecular precursor contains potential stardust forming elements, like carbon, oxygen, silicon and hydrogen. Our approach involves different steps: study of the dust formation in the plasma, dust collection, characterization of the dust properties and correlation of the plasma parameters with the dust characteristics. We have thus succeeded to identify optimum conditions for the formation of organosilicon dust with typical size of 50 nm.

A major factor impacting dust formation in evolved stars is the variation of the C/O ratio, which is though to determine two large families of stardust, silicates (C/O < 1) and carbonaceous dust (C/O > 1). To explore this effect, we have enriched the Ar/HMDSO mixture with oxygen aiming at a variation of the C/O ratio in the plasma. Above a certain quantity of oxygen, dust is not formed anymore in the plasma. The abundance of oxygen limits dust formation through inhibition of the dust seeds in the gas phase. Instead, deposition of a silica- like matrix is favored.

The role of metals is studied through sputtering of a silver target during organosilicon dust formation. We have demonstrated the formation of dust with composite structure in this case. Dust contains crystalline silver nanoparticles that attach to the amorphous organosilicon dust during their growth phase. Moreover, the presence of silver leads to a large variety of molecules composed of species containing Ag and/or Si and hydrocarbon species. Those molecules reveal a complex chemistry around three competitive processes at molecular scale: dust formation involving molecules such as SiCH3 or SiOCH3, metallic grains with clusters of Agn and aromatic molecules of large size such as C16H10 and C24H12, whose formation path involves radicals and possibly an organometallic chemistry as revealed by AgC5H6 and AgC13H8. The above results demonstrate the undoubted necessity to tackle stardust formation by taking into account the chemical complexity of these media.

Supplementary Cover of the JACS

Members of the Nanocosmos team from the ICMM-Madrid (ESISNA Group of the Institute of Material Science of Madrid), together with other researchers, have published an interesting paper in the JACS, Journal of the American Chemical Society: Atomic hydrogen makes the difference. The supply of atomic hydrogen during the on-surface annealing of PAHs substantially favors the formation of intermolecular covalent C–C bonds. The reason resides in the radical-like intermediate formed as a consequence of molecular super-hydrogenation.

Read more about those interesting results in the paper “On-Surface Hydrogen-Induced Covalent Coupling of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons via a Superhydrogenated Intermediate“, one of the Supplementary Cover Art for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (February 27, 2019).

Here is the link to the website and the link to the paper. Congratulations to the team!

Supplementary Cover Art for the manuscript: On-Surface Hydrogen-Induced Covalent Coupling of Polycyclic (10.1021/jacs.8b12239) published in Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The benzylium and tropylium cations identified as two stable C7H7+ isomers

The picture, which is a cover of the journal ChemPhysChem, schematizes the production of the C7H7 ion by dissociative ionization of toluene and the identification, by infrared spectroscopy, of the two isomers produced: the cations benzylium (right) and tropylium (left).

Experiments driven by an international team involving the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences (IRAP, Université de Toulouse/CNRS) and the Laboratory of Quantum Chemistry and Physics (LCPQ, Université de Toulouse/CNRS), enabled to identify the two stable isomers of C7H7+ ion.

The ion C7H7is a well-known species in mass spectrometry, formed by ionization of hydrocarbons such as toluene. The two most stable structures proposed for this ion are benzylium and tropylium ions. The first (a benzene with a methylene group) could be identified by its chemical reactivity, but is not the case of the second, whose structure consisting of an aromatic cycle of 7 carbons is predicted by quantum chemistry calculations.

Two structures have been identified for C7H7+ and the vibrational spectra obtained are in agreement with those of benzylium and tropylium ions calculated with the density functional theory. In addition, measures in depletion helped to show that no other isomer was present and this for different precursors used in the production of C7H7+.

The study took advantage of the FELion line, installed on the free electron laser FELIX, in the Netherlands. FELion includes a cryogenic ion trap that allows attaching an atom of rare gas on the ions studied. This technique of tagging allows to implement a spectroscopy of action by dissociating the complexion/atom of rare gas with a single infrared photon unlike the technique usually used of multiple absorption of photons to attain the threshold of dissociation of the ion. This technique has the advantage to probe ions without heating them and so without disrupting their structure through processes of isomerization.

This work of identification of C7H7+ isomers opens up prospects for the study of the growth paths of the hydrocarbon ions in complex environments both on Earth (chemistry of flames, and plasmas) or space (interstellar chemistry and planetary atmospheres as Titan’s).

This interdisciplinary work (INSU/INP/INC) has been initiated as part of the ERC Synergy NANOCOSMOS project in collaboration with the CSIC (Madrid) and involves a collaboration between the universities of Toulouse and Cologne as part of the European Training Network (ETN) EUROPAH.

Scientific paper: 

P. Jusko, A. Simon, S.Banhatti, S. Brünken, C. Joblin (2018) DirectEvidence of the Benzylium and Tropylium Cations as the two long-lived Isomersof C7H7+, ChemPhysChem, doi:10.1002/cphc.201800744 – Archives ouvertes: hal-01880438, arXiv:1809.09375

Link to the INSU news page: Les cations de benzylium et tropylium identifiés comme les deux isomères stables de C7H7+


New Nanocosmos Doctor

Some news from the young team surrounding our PI from Toulouse, Christine Joblin. Sarah Rodríguez Castillo (third on the left, first row) presented on October 30th 2018 her PhD thesis entitled “Study on the dissociation of astro-PAHs”, that was carried out at the University of Toulouse/CNRS in the framework of the Nanocosmos projet.

Congratulations on this great achievement, Doctor!


Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are revealed in astrophysical environments thanks to their characteristic infrared emission after these molecules are subjected to the vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) radiation from nearby massive stars. This interaction regulates their charge state, stability and dissociation mechanisms, which in turn affect the energy balance and the chemistry of the gas in the interstellar medium. In particular, PAHs could contribute to the formation of the most abundant molecule, H2, in photodissociation regions (PDRs). This work aims at contributing to these topics by quantifying the VUV photoprocessing of specific medium-sized PAH cations through experimental studies complemented by computational investigations.The experimental results were gathered from two campaigns at synchrotron facilities: ion trap experiments allowed us to obtain the yields of ionization and fragmentation and the branching ratios between the different photoevents, while from iPEPICO spectroscopy we obtained breakdown curves and RRKM-fitted dissociation rates. We detail the case of the fragmentation processes of two isomers of dibenzopyrene cation (C24H14+) in order to assess the impact of structure on these processes. We present Density Functional Theory calculations and Molecular Dynamics simulations, which evidence the relevance of structure and planarity in these mechanisms and provide a better view on the dissociation pathways and energetics.This work brings significant new data for models that describe the chemical evolution of PAHs in astrophysical environments, including the first measurement of the ionization yield of medium-sized PAH cations as well as several dissociation rates. We also report a new mechanism, involving specific structures with bay areas, that would need to be considered while evaluating the contribution of PAHs to the formation of H2 in PDRs.

The documentary about NANOCOSMOS nominated for BICC awards

BICC is the acronym for “XXIX Bienal Internacional de Cine Científico Ronda-Madrid-México 2018”, the biennial international event for science movies. Our documentary “NANOCOSMOS: Un viaje a lo pequeño” has been selected as finalist in this contest within the category of “Science documentary”.

We are very proud to do our bit in science communication!  Even if we don’t get any prize, we acknowledge the jury for considering our movie for the contest.  We will stay tuned for the date of the ceremony. Let’s cross fingers!

Link to the BICC press release (in Spanish).

Horizon Europe: The New Search and Innovation Framework Programme: Challenges and Opportunities

Next week NANOCOSMOS will be in the workshop “Horizon Europe: The New Search and Innovation Framework Programme: Challenges and Opportunities“, organized in the Universidad Menéndez Pelayo (UIMP) by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities and the Spanish Science Research Council (CSIC) . With several panels, this meeting joins some of the relevant scientific and industrial players around new opportunities and challenges in Horizon Europe for the period 2021-2027. The program of the meeting overviews the three major pillars of the Commission’s proposal, covering all forms of innovation, global challenges through research and innovation for the uptake of innovative solutions in industry and society, as well as investigator driven high quality research and infrastructures.  NANOCOSMOS will be represented by one of its Principal Investigators, José Cernicharo, in the panel “The ERC in Horizon Europe – A Reflection on Interdisciplinarity and Multipotentialities.”

Ve la luz el documental “Nanocosmos: un viaje a lo pequeño”


El documental, que cuenta en formato road-movie los entresijos del nacimiento de los granos de polvo en el espacio, está financiado por la Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología – Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad y el Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) y ha sido producido por la empresa LuzLux.

Tras seis meses de trabajo, el equipo formado por personal de CSIC y la productora LuzLux, entre otros, ha finalizado el documental “Nanocosmos: un viaje a lo pequeño”, una película de carretera que habla del reto tecnológico y humano que hay tras el desarrollo de instrumentación en el área de la astrofísica de laboratorio.

La historia se desarrolla en tres planos: el viaje del equipo de grabación desde Madrid hasta Toulouse, los experimentos de laboratorio explicados por sus responsables y el propio viaje de los granos de polvo cósmico desde que nacen en la envoltura de una estrella evolucionada hasta que pasan a formar parte de algo mucho más grande (una estrella, un planeta o, por qué no, un ser vivo).

Este trabajo quiere transmitir las expectativas de los equipos que luchan por comprender este proceso, el reto tecnológico y humano que supone construir máquinas complejas y lograr reproducir en un laboratorio lo que ocurre en el espacio. El documental, de 40 minutos de duración, circulará por circuitos de cine científico y canales específicos de divulgación científica durante un año, tras lo que estará disponible en la página web de Nanocosmos.

En este enlace podrán ver el tráiler que anuncia el documental, que está disponible en español  con subtítulos en inglés y en francés. También hay una versión con subtítulos en español para personas con discapacidad auditiva.


After six months of work, the team formed by CSIC staff and the LuzLux production company, among others, has completed the documentary “Nanocosmos, un viaje a lo pequeño” (a journey to the origins of dust grains), a road movie which talks about the technological and human challenge that lies behind the development of instruments in the area of Laboratory Astrophysics.

The story unfolds in three levels: the journey of the recording team from Madrid (Spain) to Toulouse (France), the laboratory experiments explained by its principal investigators and the journey of the cosmic dust grains since they are born in the envelope of an evolved star until they become part of something bigger (a star, a planet or, why not, a living being).

This work wants to transmit the expectations of the teams struggling to understand this process, the technological and human challenge involved in building complex machines whith a goal: to reproduce in a laboratory what happens in space. The 40-minute documentary will circulate along circuits of scientific movies and specific science channels for a year, and after that it will be available on the Nanocosmos’ website.

In this link you can see the trailer announcing the documentary. The movie is available in Spanish with subtitles in English and French.