X-ray laser heats water to 180,000 degrees in a fraction of a second

In our busy 24/7 world, no one has time to sit and wait for a kettle to boil, do they? Fortunately, a new demonstration carried out by scientists suggests we might not have to wait those agonizing 3 to 4 minutes each day for much longer — provided that we can get hold of a superpowerful X-ray laser, that is.

Of course, it’s not really intended as a method for boiling water for your tea or coffee so much as it is a fundamental investigation relating to matter.Scientists used this X-ray laser to raise water temperature from room temperature to a massive 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit (100,000 degrees Celsius) in just one millionth of a millionth of a second. The world’s fastest water heater experiment was performed at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. It involved firing extremely intense and ultra-brief flashes of X-rays at a jet of water, resulting in an entirely different way of heating H20.

“The method is not really meant for boiling water,” Nicusor Timneanu, a physics and astronomy researcher at Sweden’s Uppsala University told Digital Trends. “X-ray lasers are typically used to investigate the structure of matter on extremely short time scales. Often one has proteins or protein crystals embedded in water, and we have discovered that water is heated in an extremely violent way, by ionizing it and breaking all the bonds. Conventional ways of heating water will give energy to water molecules through heat transfer on a stove [or] vibrations in a microwave. Using X-ray lasers will basically vaporize the water ultrafast. This is exciting for us because we would like to understand how it is vaporized on such short times, using both computations and experiments.”

As for practical applications for vaporizing water, Timneanu acknowledges that there aren’t any that immediately spring to mind. However, that could conceivably change in the future. “Understanding why and how it works helps all projects using X-ray lasers to investigate structure of proteins and or living cells, because they would know what the limitations and challenges are of such techniques,” Timneanu said.

A paper describing this research, “Ultrafast non-thermal heating of water initiated by an X-ray Free-Electron Laser,” was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.