Gas hydrates offer new window at the origin of life

IIT Madras team-From left - Prof. Rajnish Kumar, Jyotirmoy Ghosh and Prof. Pradeep around their ultrahigh vacuum instrument

Gas hydrates, a potential source of energy on the Earth, may be present in abundance in the interstellar space, suggests a new research by scientists at IIT Madras.

The startling discovery may open up a completely new window to look at a fundamental query in science – how the life on the Earth came into being.

Hydrates (or clathrate hydrates to be more accurate) are molecules like methane, carbon dioxide, etc., trapped in well-defined cages of water molecules forming crystalline solids.

They are formed at places with high pressures and low temperatures such as the ocean floor. They are also found in the glaciers in Siberia.

Such hydrates especially that of methane, are thought to be the future sources of fuel. Several countries including India have government-funded programmes to explore and harvest the hydrates lying hundreds of metres below the sea level.

IIT Madras researchers formed such hydrates in a vacuum, one thousand billion times below the atmospheric pressure called ultra-high vacuum and temperature close to minus 263 degree Celsius (10 Kelvin). These are the conditions present in deep space.

“The findings open up the possibility of having entirely new chemistry in the space. All small molecules in the space should now be looked at as caged (hydrate) entity and reaction between two such molecules can give rise to new chemistry,” Thalappil Pradeep, lead author of the study and a professor of chemistry at the IIT Madras told DH.

The researchers created an environment in the laboratory to simulate the condition found in the interstellar space.

“Since cages of water are not expected to form under such conditions, nothing surprising was seen initially. Then I thought why not wait for days and keep observing the changes; after all ice and methane have been sitting in the space for millions of years. The excitement happened after three days when new features started coming. Then, of course, several experiments were done under controlled conditions,” Pradeep said.

The research has been published on the December 7 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The findings may have an impact on both astronomy and chemistry,” they reported in the journal.

While hydrates are being chased on the Earth as a futuristic source of energy, Pradeep ruled out any such use for an interstellar spacecraft with the current level of technology. Also, with space being too vast, it would be impossible to know where such hydrates can be found.

A far more exciting option would be to search for the new chemistry and tailor the space-probe instruments like spectroscopes to look for those signatures as there was still no answer to how molecules formed in the space and life came into being on the Earth, he said.

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Gas hydrates offer new window at the origin of life

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