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Methanol research could help astrochemists measure magnetic fields

"We developed a model of how methanol behaves in magnetic fields, starting from the principles of quantum mechanics," astrochemist Boy Lankhaar said.

By Brooks Hays

Jan. 29 (UPI) -- New research into the chemical compound methanol could help astronomers measure magnetic fields found in the dense cosmic clouds of stellar factories.

By studying the behavior of faraway molecules, scientists can measure the temperature, pressure and movement of gas in the star-forming regions of distant galaxies. But scientists have struggled to measure magnetic fields.

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"When the biggest and heaviest stars are born, we know that magnetic fields play an important role. But just how magnetic fields affect the process is a subject of debate among researchers," Boy Lankhaar, an astrochemist at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, said in a news release. "So we need ways of measuring magnetic fields, and that's a real challenge. Now, thanks to our new calculations, we finally know how to do it with methanol."

Methanol molecules, CH3OH, were first identified as a potential scientific beacon several decades ago. The molecules are found around newborn stars and operate as a natural microwave laser, or maser, absorbing energy and remitting it in the form of strong but specific wavelengths.

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"The maser signals also come from the regions where magnetic fields have the most to tell us about how stars form," said Chalmers researcher Wouter Vlemmings. "With our new understanding of how methanol is affected by magnetic fields, we can finally start to interpret what we see."

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Previous efforts to study interactions between methanol and magnetic fields in the lab have encountered a variety of problems, so scientists decided to build a theoretical model instead. Scientists incorporated both theory and previous experimental data into the new model.

"We developed a model of how methanol behaves in magnetic fields, starting from the principles of quantum mechanics," said Lankhaar. "Soon, we found good agreement between the theoretical calculations and the experimental data that was available. That gave us the confidence to extrapolate to conditions we expect in space."

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Their analysis of a rather simple molecule proved surprisingly complex, but their efforts could inspire a new problem-solving approach in the field of astrochemistry.

Researchers published their findings this week in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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