COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Using data collected by researchers at Ohio State University, astronomers have found vast quantities of pure alcohol in an interstellar cloud some 10,000 light years from Earth.

Scientists said the cloud, located near the constellation Aquila, contains enough alcohol to make 400 trillion trillion pints of beer.

The discovery was made during a study of how stars begin. Stars form from interstellar clouds, large conglomerations of gases and dust particles which can extend hundreds of light years across. Scientists have known for some time that the largest component of these clouds is hydrogen, but until now, they were not sure if ethyl alcohol molecules were also an ingredient.

"Over the course of the last 25 years or so, a number of molecules have been observed in space and scientists identify them by studying the frequencies of radiation they emit," said Eric Herbst, a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio State. Herbst and Frank De Lucia, professor and chair of the physics department, authored a study on the specific radio frequencies of

ethyl alcohol.

Ethyl alcohol can only be observed in its gaseous phase. To observe the frequencies of ethanol, De Lucia and Herbst used a laboratory microwave spectrometer developed by De Lucia, a tabletop apparatus that shoots waves of radiation through a gaseous molecular sample. The molecule absorbs the radiation at selected radio frequencies, which are identical with the frequencies emitted by the molecules in space. A detector on the spectrometer records the frequencies for study.

On a visit to Ohio State, Tom Millar, an astronomer from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in England, discovered the research done by Herbst and De Lucia and used it in his study of star formation.

"It seems the ethanol molecule is found in relatively high concentrations in regions where stars are forming," Herbst said. "The current thought is that ethanol is formed on the surface of tiny sand-like particles in interstellar clouds. The heat from the star that is forming transforms the molecule to a gas and we are able to observe it."

Millar, along with Geoff Macdonald and Rolf Habing of the University of Kent in England, found 350 spectral lines emitted from molecules in an interstellar cloud. About 70 of these lines could not be matched to any molecule until Millar found out about the work done by Herbst and De Lucia.

"By studying these frequencies, the astronomers were able to learn more than just what molecule was there," Herbst said. "They were able to get information about the cloud's environment, such as temperature and density, by studying the intensity of the frequencies."

The research suggests that ethanol can be found in other interstellar clouds in which stars are forming, Herbst said.

The research by Herbst and De Lucia was published in the April issue of the Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data .

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Contact: Frank De Lucia, (614) 292-2653; or Eric Herbst, (614) 292-6951

Written by Kelli Whitlock, (614) 292-9475