Perspectives

Detecting the building blocks of aromatics

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Science  12 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6372, pp. 156-157
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4541

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Summary

Interstellar clouds are sites of active organic chemistry (1). Many small, gasphase molecules are found in the dark parts of the clouds that are protected from ultraviolet (UV) photons, but these molecules photodissociate in the external layers of the cloud that are exposed to stellar radiation (see the photo). These irradiated regions are populated by large polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) with characteristic infrared (IR) emission features. These large aromatics are expected to form from benzene (C6H6), which is, however, difficult to detect because it does not have a permanent dipole moment and can only be detected via its IR absorption transitions against a strong background source (2). On page 202 of this issue, McGuire et al. (3) report the detection of benzonitrile (c-C6H5CN) with radio telescopes. Benzonitrile likely forms in the reaction of CN with benzene; from its observation, it is therefore possible to estimate the abundance of benzene itself.