Carbon grains around evolved stars

The Nanocosmos team published in October 21, 2019, at Nature Astronomy, 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).

Congratulations!

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.