February 2021 • 2021ApJ...908..238M
Abstract • Star formation in galaxies is regulated by heating and cooling in the interstellar medium (ISM). In particular, the processing of molecular gas into stars will depend strongly on the ratio of gas heating to gas cooling in the neutral gas around sites of recent star formation. In this work, we combine mid-infrared (mid-IR) observations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the dominant heating mechanism of gas in the ISM, with [C II], [O I], and [Si II] fine-structure emission, the strongest cooling channels in dense, neutral gas. The ratio of IR cooling line emission to PAH emission measures the photoelectric efficiency, a property of the ISM which dictates how much energy carried by ultraviolet photons gets transferred into the gas. We find that star-forming, IR-luminous galaxies in the Great Observatories All-Sky LIRG Survey with high IR surface densities have low photoelectric efficiencies. These systems also have, on average, higher ratios of radiation field strength to gas densities, and larger average dust grain size distributions. The data support a scenario in which the most compact galaxies have more young star-forming regions per unit area that exhibit less efficient gas heating. These conditions may be more common at high z, and may help explain the higher star formation rates at cosmic noon. We make predictions on how this can be investigated with the James Webb Space Telescope.