Electrical charging overcomes the bouncing barrier in planet formation

Tobias Steinpilz, Kolja Joeris, Felix Jungmann, Dietrich Wolf, Lothar Brendel, Jens Teiser, Troy Shinbrot, Gerhard Wurm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In protoplanetary disks, solid objects (so-called planetesimals) are formed from dust. Micrometre-sized dust grains grow into millimetre-sized aggregates. Once those aggregates have diameters exceeding a few centimetres, they become subject to concentration mechanisms such as the streaming instability, permitting the formation of self-gravitating clusters, which might eventually collapse into kilometre-sized planetesimals. However, for the streaming instability to set in, clumps spanning sizes from centimetres to decimetres are required in the centre of a protoplanetary disk. In the size range between millimetres and centimetres, aggregates bounce off each other rather than sticking together, and growth is stalled. Here we show in microgravity experiments that collisions between millimetre-sized grains lead to sufficient electrical charging for aggregation to bridge this gap between the bouncing barrier and the onset of the streaming instability. We computationally simulate aggregation and find that models agree with the experimental data only if electrical charging is present. We therefore propose that collisional charging may promote early growth in the size gap that current models of planetesimal formation cannot account for.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)225-229
Number of pages5
JournalNature Physics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 1 2020


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)

Cite this

Steinpilz, T., Joeris, K., Jungmann, F., Wolf, D., Brendel, L., Teiser, J., ... Wurm, G. (2020). Electrical charging overcomes the bouncing barrier in planet formation. Nature Physics, 16(2), 225-229. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-019-0728-9