Electric Molecules

Miller and Urey’s Experiment

Jul 9, 2018

Organic molecules can be created with electricity.

According to a recent press release, “… heavy organic compounds containing hundreds of atoms…” were detected at Saturn’s moon Enceladus by the Cassini Saturn orbiter during several of its flybys through the moon’s south polar geysers.

A recent Picture of the Day reported similar molecules on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres, as well as in the atmosphere of Titan, the surface of Tethys and dusting the oblate moon Iapetus. It is a mystery to planetary scientists where those molecules come from. Many of them could not survive in an oxygen atmosphere, exposed to ultraviolet light from the Sun. Some of them are created in laboratories using electric arcs.

On Earth, charged particles from the Sun, along with ions generated by Earth itself, collect in a plasma sheet within the planet’s magnetotail, where they are held together by the magnetic field. Similar processes in Saturn’s magnetotail cause ionized water ions to swap with H+ ions, consistent with charge flow from Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

Cassini’s plasma sensors found ion and electron beams propagating from Saturn’s northern hemisphere, creating an ultraviolet “footprint” in its auroral oval. A correspondence was found between time-variable emissions from the “vents” on Enceladus and the auroral footprint’s brightness variations. This means that Enceladus is a charged object, interacting with a flow of charged particles from Saturn, otherwise known as an electric current.

Stanley Miller and his faculty advisor from the University of Chicago, Harold Urey, created an experiment in 1953 that involved sending an electric current through a combination of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen, expecting that it might require years before any results were seen. However, in a completely unexpected turn of events, 4% of the contents were converted to thirteen amino acids and several other organic molecules within just a few weeks.

Rather than an ocean of briny water beneath the surface of Enceladus ejecting organic molecules into space, it is more likely that the ice and other materials are being converted to organic compounds because of intense electrical activity between the moon and its gas giant parent.

Stephen Smith

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