Bonds Beyond

The vast expanse of interstellar space is supposed to be too cold for most chemical reactions to occur. The more frigid it gets, the harder it is to spark a chemical reaction, for lack of energy – the very definition of cold. Yet a vast variety of complex organic molecules are formed in space. Some reactions transpire on the surface of cosmis dust grains, or with a little help from gamma rays or stray high-energy electrons. But most happen beyond the laws of chemistry.

Colossal clouds of alcohol float in Sagittarius B2, a giant molecular basin of gas and dust 120 parsecs from the center of the Milky Way; at a balmy 40 K or less, far too cold to explain such ample booze in space.

Interstellar spirits brew despite chemistry’s cardinal rules giving them the cold shoulder. They do so by quantum tunneling, a label that does not explain it wondrous workings.

Quantum tunneling is an extra-dimensional trick that allows a particle to surmount a barrier that it could not classical breach. Despite the intense energy involved in its process, nuclear fusion depends upon quantum tunneling.

The method for methoxy comes in combining methanol gas with a hydroxyl radical. Both are found in the cold expanse of space.

But the energy to put the two together is not. Nonetheless, reactions happen, and prodigiously so. Quantum tunneling bestirs interstellar spirits 50 times faster than would occur sitting at room temperature.