Stability of H 3 O at extreme conditions and implications for the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Mar 17;117(11):5638-5643. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1921811117. Epub 2020 Mar 3.


The anomalous nondipolar and nonaxisymmetric magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune have long challenged conventional views of planetary dynamos. A thin-shell dynamo conjecture captures the observed phenomena but leaves unexplained the fundamental material basis and underlying mechanism. Here we report extensive quantum-mechanical calculations of polymorphism in the hydrogen-oxygen system at the pressures and temperatures of the deep interiors of these ice giant planets (to >600 GPa and 7,000 K). The results reveal the surprising stability of solid and fluid trihydrogen oxide (H3O) at these extreme conditions. Fluid H3O is metallic and calculated to be stable near the cores of Uranus and Neptune. As a convecting fluid, the material could give rise to the magnetic field consistent with the thin-shell dynamo model proposed for these planets. H3O could also be a major component in both solid and superionic forms in other (e.g., nonconvecting) layers. The results thus provide a materials basis for understanding the enigmatic magnetic-field anomalies and other aspects of the interiors of Uranus and Neptune. These findings have direct implications for the internal structure, composition, and dynamos of related exoplanets.

Keywords: high-pressure physics; magnetic fields; planetary science; water.