JAN 27, 2017 12:49 PM PST

Metallic Hydrogen Created Using High-Pressure Physics

Have you ever heard of metallic hydrogen? Probably not, because it has only ever existed in theory. Harvard scientists have recently created metallic hydrogen from applying extremely high pressure to hydrogen atoms.

Metallic hydrogen was just a theory to Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington in 1935. They hypothesized that if hydrogen, which is a stable gas at room temperature and normal pressure, were subjected to extreme pressure, it would turn from a liquid state to a solid. This theory has remained one of the unattainable challenges in physics. It turns out that the pressure amount that Wigner and Huntington had estimated, about 25 GPa (gigapascal), was too low and that even higher pressure is needed to create the solid.

Applying pressure to hydrogen molecules creates solid metallic hydrogen. (Public Domain)

Harvard Professor of Natural Sciences, Isaac Silvera and his postdoctoral fellow Ranga Dias have been working on this theory and how to turn it into a reality. This two-man team recently cracked the code and successfully created the rarest material on the planet.

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics,” Silvera said of the quest to find the material. “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.”

Silvera and Dias built a high-pressure device known as a diamond anvil cell, made up of two small pieces of polished and treated synthetic diamond mounted opposite each other within a closed metal cell. In order to withstand such high pressure, the diamonds had to be coated with a thin layer of alumina to prevent the hydrogen from diffusing into the crystal structure and causing it to crack.

By squeezing hydrogen molecules to a pressure of more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch or 495 GPa, which is higher than pressure at the center of the earth, molecular hydrogen breaks down to create atomic hydrogen. In other words, when the tightly bound hydrogen molecules dissociate, metallic hydrogen is formed.

The work provides a more in-depth understanding into the properties of hydrogen, and also offers the possibility of various applications for the new material.

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable,” Silvera said. “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 remain diamonds when that pressure and heat are removed.”

Stable metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor at room temperature. This could contribute to transportation by making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible or electric cars more efficient. The new material could also improve energy production and storage since superconductors have zero resistance. The superconducting coils could store excess energy to be used as needed.

Metallic hydrogen could also revolutionize space travel. The material could increase how fast a propellant is fired from the back of a rocket by almost 4-fold. Theoretically, this could send spacecraft to the outer reaches of space within a shorter amount of time.

After a life-long quest to realize the original theory from 1935, Silvera is thrilled to have made it happen. Now the team will test the material to investigate if it can achieve its potential.

Sources: Harvard News, Science, Hydrogen History

About the Author
  • I love all things science and am passionate about bringing science to the public through writing. With an M.S. in Genetics and experience in cancer research, marketing and technical writing, it is a pleasure to share the latest trends and findings in science on LabRoots.
You May Also Like
NOV 11, 2018
Technology
NOV 11, 2018
Extending the Life of Metal-Air Batteries
Research supported by MIT Lincoln Laboratory has examined a way to substantially reduce corrosion in metal-air batteries—increasing longer shelf life...
NOV 11, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 11, 2018
Rocket Lab Successfully Sends Electron Rocket on its First Commercial Flight
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket quickly became of the most prominent means of commercial and private satellite launches, but sending such a massive rocket t...
NOV 27, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 27, 2018
Here's What Makes Mars So Challenging to Land On
Humankind has sent spacecraft to a plethora of worlds in our solar system, including asteroids, comets, moons, and planets. Of all, Mars has consistently p...
DEC 12, 2018
Plants & Animals
DEC 12, 2018
Dracula Ant's Bite Recognized as the Fastest Animal Movement on Record
Researchers are astounded after discovering what they claim to be the fastest-known animal movement on record. The findings, recently uncovered by research...
JAN 11, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
JAN 11, 2019
Condensation-resistant Liquid-repelling Surfaces
The ability to repel water, or liquids a broader sense, is a much sought-after feature in materials science. Innovative liquid repelling materials can be u...
JAN 20, 2019
Microbiology
JAN 20, 2019
A Mosquito Repellent - Made by Bacteria
Beneficial microbes are already a source of antibiotics. Now researchers have found a microbial mosquito repellent...
Loading Comments...