Media Releases

University of Toronto physicists create supernova in a jar

December 2, 2010

TORONTO, ON — A team of physi­cists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty have mim­ic­ked the explo­sion of a super­no­va in minia­ture.

A super­no­va is an explod­ing star.  In a cer­tain type of super­no­va, the det­o­na­tion starts with a flame ball buried deep inside a white dwarf.  The flame ball is much lighter than its sur­round­ings, so it ris­es rapid­ly mak­ing a plume topped with an accel­er­at­ing smoke ring.

“We cre­at­ed a small­er ver­sion of this process by trig­ger­ing a spe­cial chem­i­cal reac­tion in a closed con­tain­er that gen­er­ates sim­i­lar plumes and vor­tex rings,” says Stephen Mor­ris, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to physics pro­fes­sor.

Auto­cat­alyt­ic chem­i­cal reac­tions release heat and change the com­po­si­tion of a solu­tion, which can cre­ate buoy­an­cy forces that can stir the liq­uid, lead­ing to more reac­tion and a run­away explo­sive process.   “A super­no­va is a dra­mat­ic exam­ple of this kind of self-sus­tain­ing explo­sion in which grav­i­ty and buoy­an­cy forces are impor­tant effects.  We want­ed to see what the liq­uid motion would look like in such a self-stirred chem­i­cal reac­tion,” says Michael Rogers, who led the exper­i­ment as part of his PhD research, under the super­vi­sion of Mor­ris.

“It is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to observe the inside of a real explod­ing star light years away so this exper­i­ment is an impor­tant win­dow into the com­plex flu­id motions that accom­pa­ny such an event,” Mor­ris explains. “The study of such explo­sions in stars is cru­cial to under­stand­ing the size and evo­lu­tion of the uni­verse.”

The research will appear in Physics Review E in the next few weeks.  In addi­tion to Mor­ris and Rogers, the research team includ­ed Abdelfat­tah Zebib from Rut­gers. The work was fund­ed by the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da.

Video and pic­tures here:


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Stephen W. Mor­ris
Depart­ment of Physics
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
416–978-6810 or 416–978-6674

Michael Rogers
Depart­ment of Physics
McGill Uni­ver­si­ty

Kim Luke
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to