The Ice Giants’ Magnetism

One interesting measurement made from NASA’S sole flyby of Uranus and Neptune is that they have complicated magnetic fields, and seemingly not the simple dipolar field as found on Earth. The puzzle then is, what causes this? One possible answer is ice.

You will probably consider ice as not particularly magnetic nor particularly good at conducting electric current, and you would be right with the ice you usually see. However, there is more than one form of ice. As far back as 1912, the American physicist Percy Bridgman discovered five solid phases of water, which were obtained by applying pressure to the ice. One of the unusual properties of ice is that as you add pressure, the ice melts because the triple point (the temperature where solid, liquid and gas are in equilibrium) is at a lower temperature than the melting point of ice at room pressure (which is 0.1 MPa. A pascal is a rather small unit of pressure; the M mean million, G would mean billion). So add pressure and it melts, which is why ice skates work. Ices II, III and V need 200 to 600 MPa of pressure to form. Interestingly, as you increase the pressure, Ice III forms at about 200 Mpa, and at about -22 degrees C, but then the melting point rises with extra pressure, and at 350 MPa, it switches to Ice V, which melts at – 18 degrees C, and if the pressure is increased to 632.4 MPa, the melting point is 0.16 degrees C. At 2,100 MPa, ice VI melts at just under 82 degrees C. Skates don’t work on these higher ices. As an aside, Ice II does not exist in the presence of liquid, and I have no idea what happened to Ice IV, but my guess is it was a mistake.

As you increase the pressure on ice VI the melting point increases, and sooner or later you expect perhaps another phase, or even more. Well, there are more, so let me jump to the latest: ice XVIII. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has produced this by compressing water to 100 to 400 GPa (1 to 4 million times atmospheric pressure) at temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees K (0 degrees centigrade is about 273 degrees K, and the scale is the same) to produce what they call superionic ice. What happens is the protons from the hydroxyl groups of water become free and they can diffuse through the empty sites of the oxygen lattice, with the result that the ice starts to conduct electricity almost as well as a metal, but instead of moving electrons around, as happens in metals, it is assumed that it is the protons that move.

These temperatures and pressures were reached by placing a very thin layer of water between two diamond disks, following which six very high power lasers generated a sequence of shock waves that heated and pressurised the water. They deduced what they got by firing 16 additional high powered lasers that delivered 8 kJ of energy in a  one-nanosecond burst on a tiny spot on a small piece of iron foil two centimeters away from the water a few billionths of a second after the shock waves. This generated Xrays, and from the way they diffracted off the water sample they could work out what they generated. This in itself is difficult enough because they would also get a pattern from the diamond, which they would have to subtract.

The important point is that this ice conducts electricity, and is a possible source of the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune, which are rather odd. For Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic poles are reasonably close to the rotational poles, and we think the magnetism arises from electrically conducting liquids rotating with the planet’s rotation. But Uranus and Neptune have quite odd magnetic fields. The field for Uranus is aligned at 60 degrees to the rotational axis, while that for Neptune is aligned at 46 degrees to the rotational axis. But even odder, the axes of the magnetic fields of each do not go through the centre of the planet, and are displaced quite significantly from it.

The structure of these planets is believed to be, from outside inwards, first an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, then a mantle of water, ammonia and methane ices, then interior to that a core of rock. My personal view is that there will also be carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices in the mantle, at least of Neptune. The usual explanation for the magnetism has been that magnetic fields are generated by local events in the icy mantles, and you see comments that the fields may be due to high concentrations of ammonia, which readily forms charged species. Such charges would produce magnetic fields due to the rapid rotation of the planets. This new ice is an additional possibility, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it might contribute to the other giants.

Jupiter is found from our spectroscopic analyses to be rather deficient in oxygen, and this is explained as being due to the water condensing out as ice. The fact that these ices form at such high temperatures is a good reason to believe there may be such layers of ice. This superionic ice is stable as a solid at 3000 degrees K, and that upper figure simply represents the highest temperature the equipment could stand. (Since water reacts with carbon, I am surprised it got that high.) So if there were a layer of such ice around Jupiter’s core, it too might contribute to the magnetism. Whatever else Jupiter lacks down there, pressure is not one of them.