It was only a few years ago when scientists discovered a gigantic cloud of booze floating around in space. This cloud measured 288 billion miles wide and contained gaseous methanol, which is generally found in antifreeze and some moonshine. This posed the question, though — how do the complex molecules of alcohols actually form in space?
Like everything considered impossible — or highly improbable — scientists looked to quantum mechanics for an explanation. Although the harsh and extremely cold environment of space makes its chemistry difficult to understand, a certain phenomenon, known as quantum tunnelling, could explain how alcohol is formed and destroyed in space.
Because space is so cold, science tells us that these frigid conditions should put a stop to chemical reactions as there isn't enough energy present to rearrange chemical bonds. It had been recently suggested that dust grains could help these chemical reactions occur, but this theory was disproved last year when the highly reactive methoxy radical molecule was detected in space and could not be explained by this theory.
This is where quantum mechanics comes into play. Although chemical reactions do typically get slower as temperatures decrease, causing less energy to form, quantum tunnelling suggests that the incredibly cold temperatures of space are actually needed for complex molecules like alcohol to form.
“We suggest that an ‘intermediary product’ forms in the first stage of the reaction, which can only survive long enough for quantum tunnelling to occur at extremely cold temperatures,” said Professor Dwayne Heard, Head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Leeds, who led the research.
To test this theory, the researchers recreated the cold environment of space in a lab and then observed a reaction of the alcohol methanol and an oxidizing chemical at minus 210 degrees Celsius. They discovered that not only do these gases react to create methoxy radicals at this temperature, but the rate of reaction is 50 times faster than at room temperature.
The researchers are now investigating the reactions of other alcohols at such cold temperatures. In the meantime, we can dream about the day when we can sit in a bar on the Moon and drink a variety of boozes harvested from space.