London, May 15 (IANS) In an experimental set-up that can be seen as the world's fastest water heater, scientists have used a powerful X-ray laser to heat water from room temperature to 100,000 degrees Celsius in less than a tenth of a picosecond - millionth of a millionth of a second.
This set-up produced an exotic state of water - driving its transition from liquid to plasma.
The researchers said they hope to learn more about the peculiar characteristics of Earth's most important liquid from this exotic state of water.
The observations, detailed in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could have practical use for probing biological and many other samples as X-ray lasers are often used to investigate the atomic structure of tiny samples.
The team led by Carl Caleman from Sweden's Uppsala University used the X-ray free-electron laser source at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the US to shoot extremely intense and ultra-short flashes of X-rays at a jet of water.
"Our heating is fundamentally different," explained Caleman.
"The energetic X-rays punch electrons out of the water molecules, thereby destroying the balance of electric charges. So, suddenly the atoms feel a strong repulsive force and start to move violently," Caleman added.
In less than 75 femtoseconds, that is 75 millionths of a billionth of a second or 0.000 000 000 000 075 seconds, the water goes through a phase transition from liquid to plasma, the study said.
A plasma is a state of matter where the electrons have been removed from the atoms, leading to a sort of electrically charged gas.
"But while the water transforms from liquid to plasma, it still remains at the density of liquid water, as the atoms didn't have time to move significantly yet," said co-author Olof Jonsson from Uppsala University.
This exotic state of matter is nothing that can be found naturally on Earth.
"It has similar characteristics as some plasmas in the sun and the gas giant Jupiter, but has a lower density. Meanwhile, it is hotter than Earth's core," Jonsson added.