Radiolysis of sulfuric acid, sulfuric acid monohydrate, and sulfuric acid tetrahydrate and its relevance to Europa

M. J. Loeffler, R. L. Hudson, M. H. Moore, R. W. Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


We report laboratory studies on the 0.8MeV proton irradiation of ices composed of sulfuric acid (H2SO4), sulfuric acid monohydrate (H2SO4·H2O), and sulfuric acid tetrahydrate (H2SO4·4H2O) between 10 and 180K. Using infrared spectroscopy, we identify the main radiation products as H2O, SO2, (S2O3)x, H3O+, HSO4-, and SO42-. At high radiation doses, we find that H2SO4 molecules are destroyed completely and that H2SO4·H2O is formed on subsequent warming. This hydrate is significantly more stable to radiolytic destruction than pure H2SO4, falling to an equilibrium relative abundance of 50% of its original value on prolonged irradiation. Unlike either pure H2SO4 or H2SO4·H2O, the loss of H2SO4·4H2O exhibits a strong temperature dependence, as the tetrahydrate is essentially unchanged at the highest irradiation temperatures and completely destroyed at the lowest ones, which we speculate is due to a combination of radiolytic destruction and amorphization. Furthermore, at the lower temperatures it is clear that irradiation causes the tetrahydrate spectrum to transition to one that closely resembles the monohydrate spectrum. Extrapolating our results to Europa's surface, we speculate that the variations in SO2 concentrations observed in the chaotic terrains are a result of radiation processing of lower hydration states of sulfuric acid and that the monohydrate will remain stable on the surface over geological times, while the tetrahydrate will remain stable in the warmer regions but be destroyed in the colder regions, unless it can be reformed by other processes, such as thermal reactions induced by diurnal cycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)370-380
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Cosmic rays
  • Europa
  • Ices, IR spectroscopy
  • Impact processes
  • Jupiter, Satellites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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