A weird quirk of quantum mechanics is allowing a chemical reaction thought to be impossible to occur in cold gas in outer space.
In the harsh environment of space, where the temperature is about minus 210 degrees Celsius (minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists had thought a certain reaction involving alcohol molecules couldn’t take place, because at such low temperatures, there shouldn’t be enough energy to rearrange chemical bonds. But surprisingly, research has shown that the reaction occurs at a rate 50 times greater in space than at room temperature.
Now, by simulating the conditions of space in a laboratory, scientists have found a possible explanation for how the reaction occurs: quantum tunneling.
Tunneling depends on the odd rules of quantum mechanics, which state that particles don’t usually have decided states, positions and speeds, but exist in hazes of probability. This means that a particle might have a strong probability of being located on one side of a wall, but still retain a very small chance of actually being on the other side of it, allowing it, occasionally, to “tunnel” through a wall that would otherwise be an impassable barrier.
This tunneling ability might allow particles to undergo chemical reactions that should be impossible due to the lack of energy at the low temperatures of space.