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Hydrogen: Now Metal as Fuck
Welcome to Super Science Trends! Where we see what’s new in science and prepare you for the technological advances you can expect in the coming years. So when you get out of university and find a robot has taken your job, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
As befitting the first edition of this column, this week we’ll look at what’s new with the number one element, hydrogen. It was announced back in January that two Harvard scientists managed to turn hydrogen into a metal for the first time. Dubbing their discovery “the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics” (because what is science without a little blasphemous grandiosity?), this finding proves an 80-year-old theory about the potential of the element and could revolutionise our energy and fuel concerns.
Solid hydrogen doesn’t naturally exist on Earth, and the closest you’d get to finding it in the wild is Jupiter’s core, underneath several million pounds of atmospheric pressure. Under Earth’s gravity, hydrogen is a gas, so in order to convert it into a metal, you need an apparatus with the ability to apply a Jupiter’s worth of pressure.
The Harvard researchers did this by super-cooling molecular hydrogen (H2) down to a liquid state inside a Coke can-sized device called a cryostat. They then squeezed the hydrogen between a diamond screw and a diamond anvil, both of which had to be as flawless as possible to avoid cracking each other to pieces under the pressure, at 70 million pounds-per-square inch. Eventually, after a lot of cooling and pressure, the researchers were able to condense their liquid hydrogen, turning it from transparent to a dark, shiny metal.
Metallic hydrogen is a big deal for a number of reasons. Namely, it’s a great superconductor, a material that can conduct electricity through it without losing any energy from the transfer. The power lines to our homes lose a lot of energy through wires simply from resistance, which is why power plants are built close to cities and residential areas to get the most of the energy. If wires could be made out of metallic hydrogen, a power plant could be built almost anywhere without losing any of that energy. Solid hydrogen rocket fuel has the potential to be three times more powerful than the liquid fuel the space shuttles currently use.
But don’t hold your breath for a future of cleaner energy transference and rocket ship fuel economy just yet. All of this hinges on whether the crushing process used is replicable, and if the metal hydrogen remains a solid under ordinary atmospheric pressure, and then whether it can be turned into a fuel or a superconducting wire without needing to be kept at Andre 3000 levels of cool.
And if that load of “if”s leaves you skeptical, you’re in good company. The small but contentious field of high-pressure atomic physicists has called foul on the experiment, claiming that the Harvard pair have extrapolated too much from one small result and should replicate their results to, well, prove their metal. The head researcher admitted that more tests need to be done to ascertain the hydrogen’s properties, but he and his research team are reluctant to mess with the one sample they have, making the prospect of producing more metallic hydrogen at this venture very slim.
Beyond succeeding at the impossible, or at least the exceptionally difficult, good science hinges on the ability to replicate results. But at least now we have an idea on how to make metallic hydrogen on the reg. Anyone know a good deal on alumina-coated diamond presses?