What is Nuclear Pasta?

Artist's rendering of an outburst on an ultra-magnetic neutron star. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

An uncooked strand of spaghetti snaps easily, but an exotic substance known as nuclear pasta is a different story. Earlier this September, a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters describes what may be the strongest material in the universe: nuclear pasta. It’s found deep inside neutron stars the supermassive, dense remains of stars that have gone supernova. We’ve known about nuclear pasta for a while, but we haven’t really understood it until now. And while it probably won’t be the next big building material, it could help scientists understand how neutron stars behave. 

Neutron stars are pretty wild objects! As a result, their insides are also pretty wild. For one, they have very brittle crust, which may break if put under enough strain. Just beneath that outer crust lies the nuclear pasta, which was first proposed in the 1980s. This material is formed at high pressures where the star’s neutrons and any surviving protons are compressed so much they start organizing themselves into some really odd shapes. For example, some form long strings, called spaghetti. Others form board-like shapes, called lasagna, gnocchi, or waffles. And for the record, those are all the technical terms! Scientists are great. 

What is a Neutron Star?

But for a long time we’ve really had no idea what it meant for neutron stars to have nuclear pasta. Apart from its weird shapes and general composition, we didn’t know much about its characteristics. If the crust can break, then can the pasta break, too? As you can imagine, recreating such extreme density in a laboratory setting is not likely to happen. So, sadly, no one got to build a nuclear spaghetti-snapping machine. Instead, they took advantage of some powerful computer simulations and used those instead. 

 In the effort to figure out what was going on out there, a team of scientists from McGill University, Indiana University, and the California Institute of Technology ran the largest-ever simulations of this material. They tested it under all kinds of stretching and strain, trying to get it to break. It turns out that it needed a lot of strain – more than it would take to snap any other material – making it potentially the strongest stuff in the universe. It would be ten billion times stronger than steel. 

Nuclear Pasta
Illustrations different nuclear pasta phases © M.E. Caplan & C.J. Horowitz/Reviews of Modern Physics 2017

This pasta layer might also influence how the crust above it breaks. That means that when scientists get data from a neutron star’s crust, they might be able to figure out what’s going on in the pasta below! Of course, this is the only simulation of its kind that has been done so far, so there should be more news to come as scientists perform similar tests. But this is a big step forward in terms of neutron star research. And who doesn’t love pasta? 

Glossary

density: the level of compactness of a substance 

neutrons: a subatomic particle with no charge (neutral charge) 

neutron stars: supermassive, dense remains of stars that have gone supernova 

protons: a stable, subatomic particle with a positive charge

supernova: the explosion of a huge star that suddenly increases greatly in brightness 

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.5 – Reading Ease: 65.4

References

Caplan, M. E., Schneider, A. S., & Horowitz, C. J. (4 Sept. 2018) “Elasticity of Nuclear Pasta.” 

Physical Review Letters, California Institute of Technology, Indiana University, and 

McGill University. Web abstract. Link: https://tinyurl.com/y9yxjq5v 

Conover, E. (2018, Sept. 14) “Neutron Stars May Contain the Strongest Material in the 

Universe.” Science News. Web article. Link: https://tinyurl.com/yagsn9xl 

Hofmeister, C. (2018, Sept. 28) “Nuclear Pasta May Be the Strongest Material Ever.” SciShow, 

YouTube. Web video. Link: https://www.youtube.com/user/scishow/ 

Negele, J. W., & Vautherin, D. (1973, June 12) “Neutron Star Matter at Sub-Nuclear Densities.” 

Science Direct, US Atomic Energy Commission. Web abstract. Link:  

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0375947473903497 

(2018, Sept. 18) “Nuclear Pasta, the Hardest Known Substance in the Universe.” EurekAlert! 

Web article. Link: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-09/mu-npt091818.php 

Starr, M. (2018, Sept. 17) “Weird ‘Nuclear Pasta’ Could Be the Strongest Material in the 

Universe.” Science Alert. Web article. Link: https://tinyurl.com/y7xgmwty 

Whitwam, R. (2019, Sept. 19) “‘Nuclear Pasta’ in Neutron Stars is Strongest Material in 

Universe.” Extreme Tech. Web article. Link: https://tinyurl.com/yd9mywbj 

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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Author

  • Lia Rovira

    Lia is a creative writer at skyfeedblog.com. She is passionate about communicating science, particularly to youth, and to the general public simply curious about what goes on in our cosmos.