Heating Water To 600 Degrees Celsius In One Trillionth Of A Second

A new trick of science could trigger some interesting chemical reactions.

Illustration of a Cloud of Water Molecules Heated to 600 Degrees Celsius

Oriol Vendrell/DESY

It may only work on tiny amounts of water, but it should be the fastest transfer of energy to water on Earth. Scientists have figured out how to heat about one billionth of a liter of water 600 degrees Celsius in one trillionth of a second, according to a new paper.

Their idea is to zap the water with short, intense bursts of terahertz radiation, which are electromagnetic waves that are between microwaves and infrared light in wavelength. For less than a millisecond, the water should remain at its original density before the molecules fly apart. In that time, scientists should be able to record any chemical reactions they might try to trigger with the intense heat, according to DESY, the German research group in which the water-heating technique's developers work.

The researchers, a team of three, haven't put their method to the test yet. They've just published a paper in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition describing their idea. The method should enable physicists to do experiments about thermal reactions, such as how heat triggers molecules to recombine to form new substances, according to DESY.

To record such small, swift reactions, the researchers will need ultrashort x-rays. A facility is coming to Hamburg, Germany, home of DESY, that will provide just that. The European X-ray Free-Electron Laser facility, now under construction, will create x-ray flashes short enough to record the different stages of chemical reactions. Its board expects the facility to be ready by 2015.