Metallic Hydrogen

  • April 16, 2019

If you’ve ever taken a chemistry course, you probably know that hydrogen naturally exists as a gas. However, at Harvard University, Professor Isaac Silvera and postdoctoral fellow Ranga Dias have discovered metallic hydrogen after forty years of experimentation.

In order to form metallic hydrogen, they used a machine known as the diamond anvil cell. This contains small pieces of polished synthetic diamond that are treated to make them even tougher on both sides of the machine. Although it is small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, it can generate pressure greater than the center of the earth. Liquid hydrogen, which is formed by cooling hydrogen down to the critical temperature (−252.87°C), is placed in a loading cell within the diamond anvil cell and is pressurized. When they checked up on the sample, they found it to be shiny.

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics. 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 said.

Besides being a groundbreaking discovery, metallic hydrogen also has practical applications. If it is found to be metastable, which means that it will remain metallic when pressure is taken off, it can be used for many purposes. This includes the creation of magnets for MRI’s that work at room temperature, wires that can conduct electricity across countries, and high speed trains that are driven by magnetic levitation. In addition, metallic hydrogen can be converted into molecular hydrogen, which could revolutionize rocketry as the most powerful rocket propellant known to man.

Even if metallic hydrogen turns out to be metastable, its discovery represents a greater purpose. It expands the boundaries of human accomplishment. If humans can change the fundamental laws of nature, what else are humans capable of? The scope of human achievement should be reconsidered to be constantly expanding, or perhaps even limitless.

Information comes from the Harvard University Gazette online edition.

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