The strongest material in the universe isn’t steel, it isn’t graphene, and it’s not even that ever-so fictional vibranium. It’s pasta? Nuclear pasta to be exact. Ok, it’s not actually pasta, but it is a material so dense that it’s approximately 10 billion times stronger than steel. And yes, scientists have named it after their favorite food. It all has to do with neutron stars.
The Strongest Material In The Universe – What’s a Neutron Star?
A neutron star is what’s left after a massive star explodes into a supernova, it’s essentially the small, leftover, burnt-out core of that explosion, maybe 20 kilometers wide, extremely dense, and collapsing in on itself. The inner part of the star actually collapses so much that some of its electrons and protons get squeezed together to form more neutrons. Hence the name ‘neutron star’.
The density part is key here. Neutron stars are so dense that a single teaspoon of them would weigh a billion tons. So, if you were to dig about a kilometer below the surface of a neutron star, what do you think you’d find? New scientific work has simulated just that. The pressure inside a neutron star is so extreme that the material inside clumps together in unique patterns, many of which are vaguely reminiscent of pasta shapes. Which is what they’re named after. That’s a little outside the pasta family, but I’ll take it. These shapes were unveiled via computer simulation since such high pressures and the resulting high densities are very difficult to replicate here on earth.
How we came to know about it?
Previous work had already demonstrated that the surface of a neutron star is incredibly strong, but these new simulations show that the nuclear pasta that lies beneath is even stronger. A 2013 publication had hypothesized that nuclear pasta exists, but there were no simulations at the time that could show us what it was like. These new findings reveal a high level of detail about the shape and nature of nuclear pasta and suggest that the shapes are actually quite disorderly and complex. Why does this matter?
Well, neutron stars spin. The explosion of the massive star that will eventually become the neutron star gives the whole thing a rotation, and as the neutron star collapses, that rotation gets even faster. This spinning means that neutron stars may be emitting gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime that we could potentially detect. Here’s where nuclear pasta becomes important. Neutron stars would only generate gravitational waves as they spin if their crusts have some kind of irregularity.
The experts in this field call bump on the surface of a neutron star ‘mountains’, even though they are only a couple of centimeters tall. These lumps would be caused by mounds of dense materials inside the star. So, if nuclear pasta does indeed exist the way scientists have now simulated it, that would mean neutron stars are generating gravitational all the time! So, this is where real-world observation and simulation come together.
The various nuclear pasta types proposed by this research could be the reason behind neutron stars creating gravitational waves. Scientists think that these ‘mountains’ on the stars’ surface need to be pretty big (by neutron star mountain standards) to produce waves we can detect. These new details about nuclear pasta’s nature reveal that the pasta could be causing ‘mountains’ tens of centimeters tall, big enough that we could spot them with the observational equipment we already have, like LIGO. And observing the gravitational waves of neutron stars would, in turn, experimentally confirm the existence of nuclear pasta which is also known as the strongest material in the universe. Sorry, vibranium.