PIRENEA (Piège à Ions pour la Recherche et l'Etude de Nouvelles Espèces Astrochimiques; Ion Trap for the Research and Study of New Astrochemical Species) is an original set-up for laboratory astrophysics dedicated to the study of the photophysics and chemistry of macromolecules and nanograins in interstellar conditions.


General view of the PIRENEA set-up


View of the ion trap and internal cryogenic shield


Scientific team : Christine Joblin (Director of Research, CNRS),  Hassan Sabbah (Assistant Professor, UPS)

Technical team : Anthony Bonnamy (Research Engineer, CNRS-OMP), Loïc Noguès (Assistant Engineer, CNRS), David Murat (Engineer, CDD), Odile Coeur-Joly (Research Engineer, CNRS)


Conditions in interstellar space are very different from those usually found in the laboratory. They are characterized by a very-high vacuum (50-106 atoms/cm3) and temperatures that can be as low as 10-50 K. Physical and chemical processes in these extreme conditions involve slow processes such as infrared (IR) cooling, photodissociation near threshold and radiative association. Their study in the laboratory requires experimental techniques such as electromagnetic traps or storage rings in order to access to the long timescales of interest for astrochemistry. The PIRENEA set-up consists of a cold ion cyclotron resonance cell and several interfaces to study the photophysics and chemistry of macromolecules and nanograins in interstellar conditions.

The studied species are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and related species (carbon clusters, fullerenes, PAH clusters, complexes of PAHs with Fe et Si). The main objective is to get further insights into which species are abundant in astrophysical environments by studying their stability, chemical reactivity, and spectroscopic signatures. Such species can contain up to 20% of the carbon in the Galaxy and play a major role in the evolution of astronomical objects. The performed laboratory studies aim at guiding the analysis of observations in the IR-mm range using both ground-based telescopes (VLT, IRAM, ALMA…) and space/airborne observatories (ISO, Spitzer, Herschel, SOFIA…). There are also implications for the observations in the ultraviolet-visible range (analysis of the UV extinction curve, diffuse interstellar bands, extended red emission,...).

Local Context and Collaborations:

The PIRENEA set-up is part of the Nanograin Platform (PIRENEA-ESPOIRS) of IRAP/OMP and is supported amongst other laboratory astrophysics activities by the Programme National de Physique et Chimie du Milieu Interstellaire (http://www.pcmi.univ-montp2.fr/) of the INSU-AA/CNRS. The scientific activity involves several fields (astrophysics / chemistry / physics). In Toulouse, this concerns the Transverse Scientific Action Molecules and grains: from the laboratory to the Universe supported by the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory (2011-2015) as well as  the working group Dusty Plasmas and Cosmic Dust from the  RTRA Sciences et Technologies pour l’Aéronautique et l’Espace (2013-2014) in collaboration with other institutes of the  Université Paul Sabatier Toulouse III: LCPQ-IRSAMC, LCAR-IRSAMC and LAPLACE. Scientific collaborations involve also at the national level, the ISMO (Orsay), the Synchrotron SOLEIL and the ILM (Lyon), as well as research teams at the European and international levels from the CSIC Madrid, Cagliari Observatory, Ottawa University and Cologne University.

Recent contracts:

  • ERC Synergy, Nanocosmos (2014-2020)
  • Project of the RTRA STAE, Key processes in dust growth in plasma reactors and evolved stars (2014-2017)
  • ANR-2010-BLAN-0501, Gas-phase PAH research for the interstellar medium (GASPARIM) (2010-2014)
  • FEDER n°34172 Development of instrumentation at the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory (2009-2011)


The PIRENEA set-up combines the performances of a Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer (FT-ICR MS) with a cryogenic environment. The temperature is ~ 35 K in the ion trap (ICR cell) and the pressure is less than 10-10 mbar, which allow us approaching the physical conditions of the interstellar medium. With this technique, one can select a species of interest (given m/z ratio) in the ICR cell by selective ejection and perform studies on the isolated ions. The species are  trapped under the conjugated action of a magnetic field and a quadrupolar electric field. The set-up is made of a superconductor magnet (5 Tesla), an ultra-high vacuum chamber with cryogenic shields, a desorption/ ionisation laser system for the ion production and the electronics for the excitation/detection of ions. The central part of the experiment is coupled with interfaces for photophysical, chemical and spectroscopic studies, which consist of an OPO laser, a Xe arc spectral lamp, gas inlets, a PAH oven, an electron source and an atomic H source.


PhD thesis:

  • Photophysique des molécules polycycliques aromatiques hydrogénées d’intérêt interstellaire avec l’expérience PIRENEA, Francesca Useli-Bacchitta, Université de Toulouse [UPS], 19/11/2009.
  • Le dispositif PIRENEA dans l’étude des interactions gaz/grain dans la chimie interstellaire : mise en place d’une procédure expérimentale, Natacha Bruneleau, Université de Toulouse [UPS], 27/09/2007.
  • Montage et qualification de l'expérience PIRENEA. Photophysique des PAHs interstellaires: simulations et mesures expérimentales, Catherine Pech, Université de Toulouse [UPS], 14/12/2001.
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