For almost 100 years, scientists have been trying to turn hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements, into a metal, but until now they had no luck. Finally, a breakthrough has surfaced.
Scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in generating a minuscule amount of the rarest and what is thought to be the most valuable material on the planet.
The importance of metallic hydrogen is evident within the subject of technology. In theory, it could allow for super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains, extremely efficient vehicles, and the improvement of almost anything electrical. Furthermore, it could permit humanity to explore outer space like never before. However, one of the biggest challenges scientists face is getting the metal stable enough at normal pressures and temperatures.
“This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics,” explained Professor Isaac Silvera, one of the scientists, along with Dr. Ranga Dias, that made the breakthrough. “It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”
Right now, the piece of metal is only capable of being seen through two diamonds that were utilized to smash the liquid hydrogen at a temperature below freezing. The pressure that’s required far exceeds what is even found at the center of the Earth. Though the sample is still within the grip, over the next few weeks the researchers plan to slowly ease the pressure.
According to Professor Silvera, it is “very important” that the metallic hydrogen proves stable at room temperature. “That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed,” he noted.
If the theory holds out, electricity as we know it could dramatically change. “As much as 15 per cent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story,” Silvera said, who also noted that metallic hydrogen could allow us to form a rocket fuel nearly four times more powerful than what is available today.
“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” he said. “And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.”
“That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets.”
“We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.”
However, some scientists remain skeptical, theorizing that the hydrogen will be unstable and ultimately decay. “From our point of view it’s not convincing,” explained Mikhail Eremets, a researcher studying solid metallic hydrogen at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
“The word garbage cannot really describe it,” said Eugene Gregoryanz, a high-pressure physicist at the University of Edinburgh, who objects to several of the experiment’s procedures.
However, Silvera doesn’t want to entertain such pessimism or hostility regarding the topic. Instead, he imagines the moment they succeed as being equally as exciting as the first time the researchers figured out they had created the possibility to begin with. “Ranga was running the experiment, and we thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, ‘The sample is shining’, I went running down there, and it was metallic hydrogen,” he said. “I immediately said we have to make the measurements to confirm it, so we rearranged the lab … and that’s what we did,” he explained.
“It’s a tremendous achievement, and even if it only exists in this diamond anvil cell at high pressure, it’s a very fundamental and transformative discovery.”
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