Low temperature formation of naphthalene and its role in the synthesis of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in the interstellar medium

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jan 3;109(1):53-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113827108. Epub 2011 Dec 22.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are regarded as key molecules in the astrochemical evolution of the interstellar medium, but the formation mechanism of even their simplest prototype-naphthalene (C(10)H(8))-has remained an open question. Here, we show in a combined crossed beam and theoretical study that naphthalene can be formed in the gas phase via a barrierless and exoergic reaction between the phenyl radical (C(6)H(5)) and vinylacetylene (CH(2) = CH-C ≡ CH) involving a van-der-Waals complex and submerged barrier in the entrance channel. Our finding challenges conventional wisdom that PAH-formation only occurs at high temperatures such as in combustion systems and implies that low temperature chemistry can initiate the synthesis of the very first PAH in the interstellar medium. In cold molecular clouds, barrierless phenyl-type radical reactions could propagate the vinylacetylene-mediated formation of PAHs leading to more complex structures like phenanthrene and anthracene at temperatures down to 10 K.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cold Temperature*
  • Cosmic Dust*
  • Free Radicals
  • Isomerism
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Molecular Weight
  • Naphthalenes / chemical synthesis*
  • Naphthalenes / chemistry
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / chemical synthesis*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / chemistry
  • Surface Properties
  • Thermodynamics


  • Cosmic Dust
  • Free Radicals
  • Naphthalenes
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • naphthalene