ScienceShot: Unusual Molecules Form Near White Dwarfs

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

The incredibly strong magnetic fields surrounding white dwarfs—aged stars with the mass of our sun or greater that have collapsed to the size of a planet—could generate unusual types of chemical bonds, a new study suggests. Because the magnetic field around a white dwarf (artist's concept of Z Camelopardalis, small star in image above) can be hundreds of thousands of times the strength of Earth's magnetic field, it can actually distort the shape of the electron clouds around atoms. That, in turn, may render chemical bonds shorter and stronger, making molecules trapped within such fields as much as 25% smaller, scientists estimate. Not only that, the researchers report online today in Science, but simulations suggest that the intense fields may actually stimulate chemical reactions that typically don't take place on Earth, such as forcing two helium atoms to form a molecule. Such groups of atoms may exist in only these extreme environments. As of yet, the scientists haven't analyzed whether the new type of magnetically induced bonding will spawn exotic chemical reactions.

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Posted in Space