Discovery of a new mechanism to destroy dust grains in strong radiation fields

We report a new mechanism of dust destruction based on centrifugal force within extremely fast-rotating grains spun-up by radiative torques, which can successfully explain unusual properties of dust grains observed in the local environment of supernovae and massive stars.
Discovery of a new mechanism to destroy dust grains in strong radiation fields


Massive stars, supernovae, and kilonovae are among the most luminous radiation sources in the universe. Observations usually show near- to mid-infrared (NIR--MIR, wavelength between 1-5 micron) emission excess from ionized regions around massive stars. Early phase observations in optical to NIR wavelengths of type 1a supernovae also reveal unusual properties of dust extinction and dust polarization. The popular explanation for such NIR-MIR excess and unusual dust properties is the predominance of small grains (size tens of nanometers) relative to large grains (size of hundreds of nanometers) in the local environment of these strong radiation sources. The question of why small grains might be predominant remains mysterious. In this paper, we reported a new mechanism of dust destruction based on centrifugal force within extremely fast-rotating grains spun-up by radiative torques,  which can successfully explain this puzzle.

Why do we care about cosmic dust?

Dust is ubiquitous in the Universe, and it is usually said that “From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.” Dust is the building blocks of stars and planets. Dust can drive the mass loss in stellar winds at the end of star’s life. Dust is also the home where water ice and complex organic molecules, including biogenic molecules, are formed. Dust grains absorb starlight in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths and re-emit radiation at long, infrared wavelengths. The infrared emission from dust is a powerful tool for astronomers to study the Universe. 

Therefore, lots of research have been done to understand evolution and physical properties (e.g., size and shape) of dust. Previous studies establish that the mass of interstellar dust is dominated by large grains having a radius of hundreds of nanometers. Yet, many early-phase observations toward type Ia supernovae reveal the predominance of nanometer-sized grains (with radius of tens of nanometers) over large grains. We also see similar properties in ionized-regions around massive stars and in star-forming regions of nearby and high-redshift galaxies. This anomaly cannot be explained by current understanding of dust formation and destruction including thermal sublimation by intense radiation, sputtering in the hot gas, and grain shattering in shocks.

What is our discovery?

In a new paper published in Nature Astronomy, we discovered that, exposed to an intense radiation field such as from a supernova, massive star, or a kilonova, dust grains in the local environment can be spun-up to extremely fast rotation, above one billion rounds per second. As a result, the centrifugal force within the rapidly rotating grain can exceed the maximum tensile strength of grain material, which disrupts a dust grain into a number of nanometer-sized grains. We term this mechanism Radiative Torque Disruption (RATD). Comparing to other destruction mechanisms, we find that RATD is the fastest mechanism to destroy dust grains in intense radiation fields such as near massive stars, supernovae, and kilonovae.

Illustration of Rotational Disruption Mechanism. A dust grains of irregular shape is spun-up by radiative torques from a strong radiation source to more than billions rounds per second. Centrifugal force then disrupts this grain into many small fragments.

Why is this discovery important?

The discovery changes the current understanding of cosmic dust evolution. 

In the current paradigm, an intense radiation field heats dust grains to high temperatures and evaporate them into the gas phase, the so-called thermal sublimation mechanism. Our discovery shows that the strong radiation field can also spin-up grains to extremely fast rotation, such that the resulting centrifugal stress can disrupt them into tiny fragments. The new mechanism requires much lower radiation intensity and is thus more efficient than thermal sublimation.

The discovery resolves several longstanding puzzles revealed by observations. 

The production of nanometer-sized grains by disruption of large grains via the RATD mechanism on a short time-scale of less than a few weeks can successfully explain the unusual dust properties observed toward many type Ia supernovae. The reproduction of nanoparticles can also clarify the mysterious origin of near-to-mid-infrared emission excess observed in ionized regions around massive stars. The discovered mechanism can explain a steep far-UV rise in the in extinction curves towards starburst and high-redshift galaxies, and the decrease of the escape fraction of Lyman α photons from H II regions surrounding young massive star clusters. This work opens a new avenue to study the internal structure, composition, and grain size distribution of dust grains via observations. 

The full article is accessible via this link:

Lastly, forty years ago, in 1979, Edward Purcell, the Nobel laureate in Physics, concluded that interstellar grains of compact structures would not be disrupted by centrifugal force as a result of grain suprathermal rotation. Our study yet shows that even compact grains can be disrupted by centrifugal force when they are located near an intense radiation field, which is quite common in the Universe. 

This work was supported by the Basic Science Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF), funded by the Ministry of Education (2017R1D1A1B03035359).


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