astroengine writes "The intense cold of interstellar space shouldn't be conducive to chemical reactions between methanol and hydroxyl radicals — two molecules that are known to exist in stellar nurseries and cold interstellar clouds — and yet the product of this reaction, methoxy radicals, are found in abundance throughout the universe. What is creating them? In a paper published in the journal Nature Chemistry (abstract), Dwayne Heard and colleagues from the University of Leeds think that interstellar alcohol is undergoing a destruction mechanism facilitated by a weird quantum effect known as tunneling. On encountering hydroxyl radicals, methanol molecules should be repelled by the electrostatic force. But at very low temperatures, when both chemicals are mixed in a cold gaseous state, quantum tunneling becomes extremely efficient at allowing chemical reactions to occur. The researchers write: 'at temperatures relevant to the interstellar medium, almost every collision between methanol and OH (hydroxyl) would result in a successful reaction to form CH3O (methoxy).' What's more, they find that the reaction rate is 50 times higher in the cold interstellar environment than it is at room temperature. 'If our results continue to show a similar increase in the reaction rate at very cold temperatures, then scientists have been severely underestimating the rates of formation and destruction of complex molecules, such as alcohols, in space,' said Heard."
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