Research ArticleMETALS

Pure iron grains are rare in the universe

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Science Advances  18 Jan 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 1, e1601992
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601992


The abundant forms in which the major elements in the universe exist have been determined from numerous astronomical observations and meteoritic analyses. Iron (Fe) is an exception, in that only depletion of gaseous Fe has been detected in the interstellar medium, suggesting that Fe is condensed into a solid, possibly the astronomically invisible metal. To determine the primary form of Fe, we replicated the formation of Fe grains in gaseous ejecta of evolved stars by means of microgravity experiments. We found that the sticking probability for the formation of Fe grains is extremely small; only a few atoms will stick per hundred thousand collisions so that homogeneous nucleation of metallic Fe grains is highly ineffective, even in the Fe-rich ejecta of type Ia supernovae. This implies that most Fe is locked up as grains of Fe compounds or as impurities accreted onto other grains in the interstellar medium.

  • dust
  • nucleation
  • iron
  • interferometry
  • Microgravity
  • in-situ observation
  • supernova

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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