For nearly a century scientist have dreamed of turning the lightest element, hydrogen, into a metal. And now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy Harvard University scientists have finally succeeded in creating a small amount of what is considered to be the rarest and possibly most valuable material on the whole planet.
Metallic hydrogen theoretically could cause a revolution in the technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, ultra-efficient vehicles or even high-speed levitation trains. This could improve almost everything involving electricity and allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.
However, the prospect of this bright future could be at risk if the scientists’ next step fails to go as hoped, or if they establish that the metal is not stable at normal pressures and temperatures.
Isaac Silvera, the professor that made this breakthrough with Dr. Ranga Dias said that this is “the holy grail of high-pressure physics”.
“It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on our planet, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that has never existed before”, said Silvera.
This tiny piece of metal can only be seen through two diamonds that were used to crush the liquid hydrogen at a temperature that is far below freezing and the amount of pressure that was needed was immense, even more that the pressure found at the centre of our Earth.
This sample has remained trapped in this huge grip, but researches plan to carefully ease the pressure in the next few weeks.
According to a theory that Professor Silvera considers as a very important one, metallic hydrogen can be stable at a room temperature.
“That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds react. Diamonds are formed from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamonds when that pressure and heat is removed,” he said.
If this theory is true, then the properties as a super-conductor could and will dramatically improve anything that uses electricity.
“Around 15 per cent of energy is lost to dissipation during this transmission, so if we are able to make wires from the material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story,” the scientist said.
This metallic hydrogen could also transform humanity’s efforts to explore the solar system by providing a form of rocket fuel that’s nearly four times more powerful than the best available today.
Professor Silvera sais that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen, but if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all the energy that is released would make this element the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.
Despite this, some scientists are sceptic and have theorised that metallic hydrogen will be unstable on its surface and so would gradually decay.
Asked what he thought would happen, Professor Silvera answered that he does not want to guess, but to do the experiment first. This for him and the scientist could be a moment as exciting as the time they first realized what they had created.
“Dr. Ranga was running the experiment, and we all thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, ‘The sample is shining’, I immediately went running there, andthere it was – metallic hydrogen”.
For the professor this represents a tremendous achievement and a fundamental and transformative discovery.