Electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry in substellar atmospheres

How do prebiotic molecules, necessary to the origin of life, form? What energies are needed for the formation of e.g. formaldehyde, ammonia or glycine? Do dust grains of exoplanetary atmospheres have a key role in these processes? These and similar questions were investigated by Dr. Craig Stark and his collaborators.

Dust is present all over the Universe, growing in a variety of diverse environments, for example in the atmospheres of gas giant exoplanets, where mineral dust clouds form, as earlier works of our group have demonstrated. In this atmospheric plasma the dust grains become charged and attract positive ions accelerated from the plasma. “The energy of the ions upon reaching the grain surface may be sufficient to overcome the activation energy of particular chemical reactions that would be unattainable via ion and neutral bombardment from classical, thermal excitation. As a result, prebiotic molecules or their precursors could be synthesized on the surface of dust grains that form clouds in exoplanetary atmospheres.”


Figure 1. Miller-Urey experiment

The famous experiment of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey was one of the first to show how important electricity is in the synthesis of prebiotic molecules. (Fig. 1.) They showed that in a planetary atmosphere composed of H2, CH4, NH3 and H2O it is possible to form prebiotic amino acids and other biological molecules important for life if electrical discharge is present. However nowadays scientists believe that the atmospheric composition used in the above mentioned experiment does not correspond to the one existed on the young Earth, although a recent study showed that during volcano outbursts, where reduced gases and lightning processes are also present, it is possible to produce prebiotic molecules. As our paper says: “For atmospheres more representative of primitive Earth, no significant organic molecules are produced using electrical (sparking) discharges. However, the presence of hydroxy-acids in the famous Murchison meteorite indicate that the so-called Strecker amino-acid synthesizing mechanism (triggered by a Miller-Urey-type electrical discharge) may be responsible for the extraterrestrial synthesis of amino acids.”

Why may dust grains have a significant role in the occurrence of particular chemical reactions? Because in a plasma containing dust particles the absorption of different kind of species is electrostatically driven, which means that energies can easily exceed the activation energy required for the formation of prebiotic molecules.

“Consider a dusty plasma in the atmosphere of a substellar object such as a giant gas exoplanet. The dust particles will be negatively charged and as a result a plasma sheath (an electron depleted region) forms around the particle. As a consequence, the ionic flux at the grain surface increases as the plasma ions are attracted to and are accelerated towards the grain surface. Upon reaching the surface the ions have fallen through an electrostatic potential and have been energized. In comparison to the neutral case, the ionic flux is enhanced and the ionic energy amplified, increasing the probability that chemical reactions will occur and that reactions with higher activation energies are accessible. In this way, charged particle surfaces help catalyze chemical reactions otherwise inaccessible at such low-temperatures present in planetary atmospheres.”

In this paper we investigated the energization of ions as they are accelerated to the surface of a charged dust grain. We were mainly interested in the electrostatic activation of particular chemical reactions in the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Simulations were made using an example substellar atmosphere, which was created by the Drif-Phoenix atmosphere and cloud formation code. The atmosphere was defined by the following parameters: Surface gravity (log(g)) = 3.0; effective temperature (Teff) = 1500 K and solar metalicity ([M/H]=0.0).

Figure 2. was taken from the paper. As it says, the figure “shows the mean grain size  as a function of atmospheric pressure pgas. In the nucleation-dominated upper atmosphere (pgas ≈ 10-11 bar) seed particles form with a mean grain size <a> ≈ 10-7  cm. The dust particles gravitationally settle and grow as they fall, increasing in size. In the lower atmosphere (pgas ≈ 1 bar) the mean particle size is <a> ≈ 10-5 cm.”

Figure 2.  Mean grain particle size  as a function of gas pressure.

Figure 2. Mean grain particle size as a function of gas pressure (Stark et al. 2013)

As the electron temperature increases the local electrostatic field will rise as well which will result in that the ions accelerated by this field gain more energy. The more energy the ions gain the more likely to form molecules with higher activation energies.

We used the formation of glycine (NH2CH2COOH) to give an example “of the electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry on the surface of a charged dust grain.” The following chemical sequence shows the individual steps, which lead to the formation of glycine, with the formation energies (an indicator of the activation energy of the chemical reaction)

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 14.24.12

Figure 3. Synthesis of glycine

Figure 3. Synthesis of glycine

As our results show, “high in the atmosphere where pgas ≈ 10-15 bar, the ion temperature is ≈ 600 K and the resulting thermal energy of an ion is ≈ 0.08 eV, which is lower than the energies required to form the reaction products above. However when the electron temperature Te = 1 eV the ions are accelerated to Etot ≈ 7.8 eV which surpasses the required formation energies, increasing the likelihood that these reactions will occur. At lower atmospheric pressures where it is hotter, the thermal energy can reach ≈ 0.45 eV (≈ 5200 K) and there will exist a population of higher energy ions that, once neutralized on the surface, may be energetic enough to activate the required chemical reactions to form glycine.”

We showed in our paper that in atmospheric plasma where dust grains become negatively charged, ions can be accelerated to energies high enough to produce chemical reactions which would be inaccessible via classical thermal ion and neutral fluxes. As a consequence the creation of prebiotic molecules on grain surfaces may increase significantly.

The importance of this paper is that it “establishes the feasibility of the electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry. This idea can be developed to explicitly model the surface chemical kinetics, describing the incoming accelerated ions interacting with the grain surface. In this way, the effect of the plasma ionic species, the composition of the grain surface and the effect of the grain charge on the resulting surface chemical reactions can be quantified.”

For more details check out the original paper on arXiv:

C. R. Stark, Ch. Helling, D. A. Diver, and P. B. Rimmer 2013, IntJAstrobio 13, 165

Also look at the press release of the paper:


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