Medicine

X-Ray Barrage Creates ‘Molecular Black Hole’

The X-ray technique can give scientists extremely detailed images of organic materials on the atomic level, potentially leading to new therapies and medicines.

The extremely intense X-ray flash knocks so many electrons out of the iodine atom (right) such that it pulls in the electrons of the methyl group (left) like an elecetromagnetic version of a black hole, before finally spitting them out. | DESY/Science Communication Lab
The extremely intense X-ray flash knocks so many electrons out of the iodine atom (right) such that it pulls in the electrons of the methyl group (left) like an elecetromagnetic version of a black hole, before finally spitting them out. | DESY/Science Communication Lab

The black hole is an evocative concept in both science fiction and real science. For astrophysicists, the term refers to a region of space where gravity is so intense that all adjacent matter and radiation is sucked in — not even light can escape. In science fiction, black holes tends to flip spaceships through interdimensional tesseracts and tear up the space-time continuum.

So creating a tiny black hole in a lab seems like a dubious proposition – you might lose some lab equipment, or graduate students, or the entire north campus. Nevertheless, a team of scientists announced this week that they have successfully created a “molecular black hole” that sucks in neighboring electrons with irresistible force.

Happily for life as we know it, the black hole recently generated at California's SLAC National Accelerator Lab is more metaphorical than literal. By showering the complex molecule iodomethane with intense streams of X-ray light, the scientists triggered a phenomenon that's similar to a black hole on the molecular level. The high-intensity X-ray bath effectively stripped the iodomethane molecule of several electrons, causing a chain reaction in which neighboring electrons were sucked into the void.

“The analogy to a black hole comes from the fact that when the X-rays strip electrons from the iodine atom inside the molecule, it sucks in 'stuff' that is around it,” said Artem Rudenko, a physicist at Kansas State University. “In this case, the ‘stuff’ is further electrons from the rest of the molecule — and it seems to gobble up all of them that it can get.”

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All of this subatomic action takes place in an instant, Rudenko said, and actually involves electromagnetic forces that are many times stronger than what you would encounter in a cosmic black hole. In the group's experiments, the X-ray bath stripped the iodomethane of 54 of its 62 molecules, resulting in the highest level of ionization ever achieved using radiation or light, according to the researchers.

“One of the most important applications of these super-intense hard X-rays is for imaging the structure of matter at very high resolution,” Rudenko said. “Biologists can use them to figure out the unknown structure of a bacteria, protein, or virus.”

In other words, the X-ray technique can give scientists extremely detailed images of organic materials on the atomic level, potentially leading to new therapies and medicines. Rudenko said the plan is to have other research teams build on the progress of these initial tests, mapping out even more complex molecules.

“For example, using our data, our collaborators from Hamburg can now do realistic damage simulations,” Rudenko said.

Speaking of Hamburg, the molecular black hole project was very much an international endeavor. In addition to US research groups in Kansas and California, the project included scientists from Japan, Germany, China, Denmark, and France. The group’s findings were published in the journal Nature.

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